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The school drug-testing dilemma

While some school districts have implemented extensive programs, other administrators take different approaches
Research regarding the effectiveness of random drug testing of students at school is scarce and inconsistent.
Research regarding the effectiveness of random drug testing of students at school is scarce and inconsistent.

An Ohio student’s overdose in 2015 proved to be the final straw for Belpre School District Superintendent Tony Dunn.

The communities surrounding the district had seen a high rate of opiate abuse over the past decade. As use trickled into schools, district leadership concluded that drug testing was necessary.

Belpre High School enacted a mandatory drug-testing policy this fall for student athletes, participants in other extracurricular activities, and those who park their car on school grounds.

Belpre isn’t alone: About 27 percent of high schools nationwide have a form of student drug testing, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some schools also perform “reasonable suspicion” testing on students who show evidence of illegal drug use, which can include abnormal behavior or physical symptoms.

A panel of Belpre teachers and community members helped develop a drug prevention plan, using neighboring districts’ policies as a guide. The idea was presented to the community at a board meeting and later approved for the 2016-17 year with community support.

“A grandparent of a student recently said: ‘I applaud your efforts, I just wish it had happened sooner,’” Dunn says. “We hope that it will start a conversation between adults and kids.”

Types of testing

Research regarding the effectiveness of random drug testing of students at school is scarce and inconsistent, says Emily Feinstein, director of health law and policy at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Some studies indicate that it can serve as a deterrent and prevent substance abuse, while other research shows it has little to no impact, Feinstein says.

Schools typically allocate a small portion of their budget and hire a local vendor to test a certain amount of students each month. In some cases, districts are awarded grants from local organizations that participate in other anti-drug efforts.

In most districts that test, eligible students are selected randomly by a software program operated by the vendor. The number of students tested and at what point varies by district. The vendor arrives at school with test kits depending on the number of students chosen that day. A student can be removed from class and escorted to a nurse’s office to take a urine or hair follicle test.

An initial positive test can be identified with a test strip, and all positive samples get returned to the lab for confirmation. The tests look for a variety of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and opiates. In most cases, a positive test means the student will undergo another round of testing the following month.

Massachusetts is using a different strategy. A new law, which goes into effect next year, requires every school in the state to verbally screen students in grades 7 and 10 twice per year. A nurse or school psychologist will ask students about the type and frequency of their drug use. Students answer verbally or in writing.

In the new policy, parents won’t be notified of their child’s responses unless the student uses drugs frequently and needs to be placed in a recovery center or another type of care.

Early intervention

Belpre’s testing pool—students who drive or participate in extracurricular activities—constitutes about 30 to 50 percent of the student population in most districts. Belpre also tests student drivers, who can legally be categorized into the extracurricular category by defining parking as a privilege.

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from search and seizure without probable cause, so schools cannot drug-test just any student. But in 2002, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Board of Education v. Earls upheld the constitutionality of school drug testing of students who participate in extracurricular activities. The court found that participating in extracurricular activities included a lower level of privacy, and testing protected the rights of the school to establish a drug-free setting.

At Belpre, a first positive test bars the student from taking part in after-school activities or parking for 25 percent of the school year or athletic season. A second positive test result increases the ban to 50 percent, and future positive tests could lead to permanent suspension from the activity altogether.

Only the student, parents and administrators are notified of the positive test. Law enforcement is not involved at Belpre, and the student is not punished academically. The record of the positive test is destroyed once the student graduates from high school.

Carroll County School District in Georgia, which has 4,000 students, tests 80 random students each month. Of the 720 tested during the last full school year, only 18 tested positive, and law enforcement was not notified. Assistant Superintendent Terry Jones says he is encouraged by such results.

The district implemented the policy as a preventative measure to steer students away from drug use, partly out of obvious concern for students, and partly because early prevention is less expensive than investigative measures later. The cost of drug tests can add up quickly—Carroll County spent about $15,000 on policy enforcement a year ago. Jones says that the budget limits the number of tests the district can perform in a year.

“We felt like if students knew it was a possibility to be tested, they’d be less likely to make that decision [to use drugs],” Jones says.

Lacey Township School District in New Jersey has extended its high school drug-testing policy to seventh- and eighth-graders. The expansion’s purpose was early intervention—it was not driven by a drug problem, says Superintendent Craig Wigley.

Random testing in Lacey Township is mandatory for high school students in extracurricular activities, but the voluntary middle school effort aims to inspire parents and students to talk at home about the dangers of drugs, Wigley says.

More effective alternatives?

Opponents of student drug testing, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, argue that testing in school does not get to the root of addiction and overdoses, and that its effectiveness is inconclusive.

School is not the right venue for testing because administrators lack the expertise and the money to accurately test students, says Sharon Levy, chair of the academy’s committee on substance abuse.

Levy—who works with teenagers in a drug treatment facility—co-authored a report in 2015 that explored the benefits, costs and risks of student drug testing programs, titled “Substance Use Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment.” Levy says the average price of a test can range from $20 to $45.

“In the big picture it seems like a good idea,” Levy says. “When you really get into the details and understand the problems, it’s not simple or effective.”

Levy points to the possibility of tampering as a potential roadblock against an accurate test. To prevent a positive result, a student may submit someone else’s sample or ingest a masking agent in liquid form—which can cause dangerous electrolyte imbalances.

The academy also notes that school-based testing can cause modest, short-term decreases in substance abuse, but no evidence exists of lasting prevention.

Levy suggests other approaches, including substance abuse education, counseling and referral to professional care. Conversation between pediatricians and parents about drug use and its consequences is also recommended.

‘A lifetime change’

Chase County Schools Superintendent Joseph Lefdal has steered his Nebraska district away from drug testing after seeing negative consequences at his previous district. At Santee Community Schools, also in Nebraska, students would not try out for sports out of fear they would be tested, he says.

Lefdal, a former counselor, believes a prevention approach is the best way to attack drug use. Support can come in the form of psychological counseling, substance abuse classes and creating a more individualized learning atmosphere for students.

In one instance, a student on the verge of dropping out due to smoking marijuana every day was able to take classes online and stay on track remotely. Physically being in a classroom was too stressful for him.

Lefdal believes testing does not guarantee students will receive the proper recovery treatment. Testing, due to its sporadic scheduling, doesn’t catch all students who are using, and those who do not get caught will continue to use, Lefdal says.

“We have to look at what and why we’re trying to get out of it,” Lefdal says. “If we are kicking kids out of sports for 40 days or whatever it’s going to be, that can be a lifetime change.”

Ryan Lacey is staff writer.