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March 2, 2006 - Daily Press (VA)

Editorial: The Wrong Lessons

Here's What Random Drug Testing Will Teach Students

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

If the Williamsburg-James City County School Board adopts the random student drug testing program recommended by Superintendent Gary Mathews, a few years from now a student applying to college may submit an essay, like the hypothetical creation below, that paints a dismaying picture of the consequences.

What Doesn't Have To Be

The topic for this essay is "A new kind of education: What I learned when my school district instituted random student drug testing." It will explain why, on my admission application, you will not see any extra-curricular activities that involved competition or fell under the auspices of the Virginia High School League.

I did not join any sports teams or work on the yearbook or play in the band, as taking part in any of those activities, or many others at my school, would have made me subject to the random testing the School Board implemented in 2006.

When the board made that rash move, I was just entering high school. My parents and I agonized then and over the next four years about how to respond to the board's decision to subject to random testing any student who participates in any competitive extra-curricular activity or (until a court threw this out as unconstitutional) parked at school. We opted out of that intrusive, punitive policy -- but at the price of opting out of valuable extra-curricular activities. Our choice was difficult, but I learned a lot from it.

I learned that schools can teach very damaging lessons. Here are what some students at my school learned:

That it's public policy to compromise parental responsibility. When a student is discovered to have used drugs, the policy takes the decision about how to respond away from parents by mandating that the student see a school counselor. After a second positive test, it dictates that parents must use the substance abuse program selected by the schools or get school approval for any alternative. Educators bewail parents' failure to live up to their responsibilities, then undercut them.

That punishment, not prevention or intervention, is the right response to children's problem. Testing advocates talked about prevention, but this policy is about punishment, or hanging that threat over students' heads. For a first positive test, a student is kicked off a team or out of an activity for a minimum of two weeks -- that's punitive. What's really bizarre is that the school is monitoring -- and doling out consequences for -- behavior that happens off campus and that might have no effect on school performance.

That we should roll over and sacrifice our rights -- our constitutional protections against search and seizure -- just because some heavy-handed authority tells us to. At the time this was being debated, the nation was embroiled in debate about how far we must go in compromising our rights in time of war. W-JCC schools teach the next generation to surrender easily. What would the Founders say to our discounting the rights for which they fought?

That we have no claim to privacy. No group is as good at keeping track of its members as a school full of adolescents. If a student is called out of a class to take a test, then disappears from the team or band practice for a couple of weeks, rumors fly and there's no such thing as confidentiality. Families have no claim to it either, with administrative staff, student assistance counselor and activity adviser or coach all knowing the results of their child's test, and the counselor privy to intimate details of their family life. My family decided we didn't want that kind of information floating around school; other families in this community now wish they'd made the same decision.

That sloppy policy is good policy. The testing program imposes constitutionally suspect intrusions on a large number of students because a tiny minority violated school policies. It invades their privacy in the absence of any indication they have committed crimes or broken school rules. It targets students who have the grades, motivation and parental support to be involved with extra-curricular activities but ignores the ones most likely to use drugs: those with academic problems, those not engaged in school life. It teaches tomorrow's citizens not to hold their government to the common-sense test.

That educators are really enforcers. At a hearing on the policy, a parent evoked a startling image of a principal with a book in one hand and a specimen cup in the other. I've seen that vision become reality. For many students, especially those having trouble at home, school was the place they could turn to and trust adults. Now school is more like a police state, with the principal demanding urine specimens and club advisers enforcing suspensions from after-school activities. The policy has driven a wedge between students and the adults they should be able to count on.

This future does not have to come true. The School Board can, and should, reject random student drug testing on March 7.

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