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Drug Testing News
No Sign That Drug
Testing Deters Students' Drug Use
Sat May 17, 8:57 AM ET
By GREG WINTER The New York Times
Drug testing in schools does not deter student drug use any
more than doing no screening at all, the first large-scale
national study on the subject has found.
The United States Supreme Court has twice empowered schools to
test for drugs first among student athletes in 1995, then for
those in other extracurricular activities last year. Both
times, it cited the role that screening plays in combating
substance abuse as a rationale for impinging on whatever
privacy rights students might have.
But the new federally financed study of 76,000 students
nationwide, by far the largest to date, found that drug use is
just as common in schools with testing as in those without it.
"It suggests that there really isn't an impact from drug
testing as practiced," Dr. Lloyd D. Johnston, a study researcher
from the University of Michigan, said. "It's the kind of
intervention that doesn't win the hearts and minds of
children. I don't think it brings about any constructive
changes in their attitudes about drugs or their belief in the
dangers associated with using them."
The prevalence of drug use in schools that tested for drugs
and those that did not was so similar that it surprised the
researchers, who have been paid by the government to track
student behavior for nearly 30 years and whose data on drug
use is considered highly reliable.
The study, published last month in The Journal of School
Health, a peer-reviewed publication of the American School
Health Association, found that 37 percent of 12th graders in
schools that tested for drugs said they had smoked marijuana
in the last year, compared with 36 percent in schools that did
not. In a universe of tens of thousands of students, such a
slight deviation is statistically insignificant, and it means
the results are essentially identical, the researchers said.
Similarly, 21 percent of 12th graders in schools with testing
said they had used other illicit drugs like cocaine or heroin
in the last year, while 19 percent of their counterparts in
schools without screening said they had done so.
The same pattern held for every other drug and grade level.
Whether looking at marijuana or harder drugs like cocaine and
heroin, or middle school pupils compared with high school
students, the fact that their schools tested for drugs showed
no signs of slowing their drug use.
While it is possible that schools that imposed screening had
had even higher rates of use before, the researchers said that
was extremely unlikely because they controlled for behavioral
factors normally associated with substance abuse like truancy
and parental absence.
"Obviously, the justices did not have the benefit of this
study," said Graham Boyd, a lawyer for the American Civil
Liberties Union (news - web sites) who argued the case against
drug testing before the Supreme Court last year. "Now there
should be no reason for a school to impose an intrusive or
even insulting drug test when it's not going to do anything
about student drug use."
But other researchers contend that the urinalysis conducted by
schools is so faulty, the supervision so lax and the
opportunities for cheating so plentiful that the study may
prove only that schools do a poor job of testing.
"That's like blaming antibiotics if you didn't take them
properly, or blaming the doctor who prescribed them," said Dr.
Linn Goldberg, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health and
Science University, who conducted a much more limited study on
two Oregon high schools last year. It found that intensive,
Olympic-grade testing could reduce drug use.
Still, Dr. Goldberg argued, even his study did not prove that
testing limits consumption. "Schools should not implement a
drug testing program until they're proven to work," he added.
"They're too expensive. It's like having experimental surgery
that's never been shown to work."
Most schools have shied away from drug testing. The Michigan
study found that only 18 percent of the nation's schools did
any kind of screening from 1998 to 2001, most of them high
schools. While a broad swath of the school population may be
screened, from honor students in extracurricular activities to
students on probation, most of the testing focuses on those
who are suspected of using drugs.
Such tests do not violate the Fourth Amendment safeguards
against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court
has ruled, because children have limited expectations of
privacy, the tests are not overly intrusive and because they
are likely to deter substance abuse. Writing for the court in
1995, Justice Antonin Scalia (news - web sites) described the
"efficacy of this means for addressing the problem" of student
drug use as "self-evident."
Seven years later, Justice Clarence Thomas (news - web sites)
restated the court's opinion, ruling that "the need to prevent
and deter the substantial harm of childhood drug use provides
the necessary immediacy for a school testing policy."
Though the study may call those presumptions into question, it
does not mean that drug testing is any less constitutional,
said the National School Boards Association, which filed legal
briefs in support of testing to the court. Given the other
constitutional grounds for testing elaborated by the justices,
particularly the role of schools as guardians of their
students' well-being, the association maintains that schools
should continue to test, if they so choose.
"I'm not saying school districts should ignore that study,"
Naomi Gittins, an association lawyer, said. "I think it's a
good idea that schools take a look at that study. It's an
important decision that they're making."
The study would not have swayed Randall Aultman, former
principal of tiny Vernonia High School in Oregon whose
decision to screen its athletes led to the Supreme Court's
1995 ruling. Drug use was so rampant among his students that
he says "we had to do something drastic," without even knowing
whether it was legal, much less effective.
"I don't think that drug testing works all the time, in all
situations," Mr. Aultman said. "And the truth is there were
many kids who said, `Yeah, we quit while we were in season and
once the season was over we went back to using drugs.' "
Even so, Mr. Aultman added, other students quit for life, and
"at that time, it really worked."
The Michigan study was financed by grants from the National
Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of
Health (news - web sites), as well as the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation, which supports drug testing in schools. It
collected data on testing policies at 722 middle and high
schools, and drew on anonymous surveys from 30,000 8th
graders, 23,000 10th graders and 23,000 12th graders, an
enormous statistical undertaking that may not be matched for
years. The researchers assume that some will lie about their
drug use, but say that the effects are insignificant.
There is at least one important limitation of the Michigan
study. It does not differentiate between schools that do
intensive, regular random screening and those that test only
occasionally. As a result, it does not rule out the
possibility that the most vigilant schools do a better job of
curbing drug use.
"One could imagine situations where drug testing could be
effective, if you impose it in a sufficiently draconian manner
that is, testing most kids and doing it frequently," Dr.
Johnston, the Michigan researcher, said. "We're not in a
position to say that wouldn't work."
The Supreme Court, however, has not ruled on whether testing
all students, even those not in extracurricular activities, is
The National Institute on Drug Abuse said it would take
several more such studies before any certainty about the
efficacy of testing can be established. More research is being
explored, it said, but the results are probably years away.
Even so, some took the study as proof that education is the
most effective weapon against substance abuse. They said that
while screening may give rise to a culture of resistance, in
which students take pride in beating the test, the best
results come from convincing children that most children do
not use drugs, making drugs less appealing.
"At best, testing could be a band-aid, and certainly not an
answer," Tom Hedrick, director and founding member of the
Partnership for a Drug-Free America, said.