Drug Testing In Schools: Can It Cause Harm?

Many schools and districts are performing drug tests or are considering drug screens for students entering competitive sports, other physical extracurricular activities such as school band and cheerleading, and non-active, extracurricular activities such as chess club or the debate team. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling permits this to occur. Local school districts need not adopt this practice, however, and states are still permitted to disallow this practice to protect individual rights within the state’s constitution.

Where student drug testing is currently practiced, students testing positive are typically excluded from their desired extracurricular activity until they are cleared with another screen. Other consequences of a drug screen may include punitive measures, counseling, therapy, and rehabilitation – with variation from one district to the next. There are also significant degrees of variation between districts for the drug tests performed (such as urine versus hair sample, various drugs that are and are not screened).

Most of us readily accept drug testing for certain employees. This protects the public from having intoxicated pilots, bus drivers and police. In contrast, drug testing of adolescents is not done for safety of the public. The hopes for drug-testing programs at school are that it will be easier for students to say “no” to drugs after they join a school activity, that random checks will keep students from trying these substances, and that safety will be improved for those engaged in sports.

So far, studies have not shown drug testing to be a deterrent. It has yet to be established that students who are interested in sports and extracurricular activities, and who are also substance users, are more likely to go on to have serious problems than those who do not seek these activities. In fact, there is evidence that quite the opposite is true; that is, those who do not seek to engage in extracurricular activities are more likely to go on to have drug-abusing problems.

Most importantly, it is yet to be established that drug testing does not cause harm. The potential for harm includes:

  1. Screening may decrease involvement in extracurricular activities among students who regularly use or have once used drugs. Without such engagement in healthy activities, adolescents are more likely to drop out of school, become pregnant, join gangs, pursue substance abuse, and engage in other risky behaviors.
  2. An unsafe home environment is one predictor for drug abuse in adolescents. Screening may cause deterioration, rather than an improvement, in home situations as a result of a positive test.
  3. Screening may cause emotional difficulty related to the invasion of a person’s privacy. There is a great deal of variation to how adults respond to drug testing – most don’t mind at all, some consider it very intrusive. During adolescence, many teens feel estranged from their ever-changing bodies – even when there are no intrusions. A sizable minority of healthy adolescents who are not abusing drugs will experience an inordinate degree of stress as a result of mandated tests. The Supreme Court may not feel that adolescents joining extracurricular activities have the right to protest these intrusions, but this does not mean that adolescents don’t need us to provide them those rights, given their developmental stage.
  4. Dollars spent on drug testing programs may be drawn from school-based drug prevention programs that have shown to be effective (Botvin’s Life Skills Program).

Until we have the evidence that we need to be certain that we are not causing harm, drug testing and screening programs in school should be limited to carefully controlled programs designed to research these programs’ potential harm, potential benefits and cost-benefits.

Posted by A. Shapiro
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