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September 21, 2005 - The News-Sentinel (IN)

Op-Ed: Testing Students For Drugs Is Neither Solution Nor Bargain

By Paul Armentano

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Students in Southwest Allen County Schools will be turning in more than just their homework this school year. Thanks to the district's new drug-testing policy, students will soon be required to randomly submit their urine to school authorities for mandatory drug screening. Chances are, however, this latest 'test' may be more than its proponents bargained for.

Though couched by advocates as a silver bullet in the ongoing battle to curb teen drug use, random student drug testing is often ineffective and costly, and it opens a Pandora's box of serious ethical questions.

That's according to the only federally commissioned study ever to assess the efficacy of student drug testing on a national basis. The study, conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, found no difference in the level of illegal drug use between students in schools that test for illicit drugs and those in schools that do not.

'Drug testing of students in schools does not deter use,' said the University of Michigan news release summarizing the findings of the four-year study, which was later published in the Journal of School Health. 'At each grade level studied - 8, 10 and 12 - the investigators found virtually identical rates of drug use in schools that have drug testing and the schools that do not.'

More recently, a comprehensive review by Britain's Joseph Rowntree Foundation also gave student drug testing a failing grade. Its report, published in February, noted that objective evidence supporting the effectiveness of random student drug testing is 'remarkably thin,' and warned that the policy could do greater harm than good.

That's because, according to the report, student drug testing 'undermines trust between pupils and staff,' and, in some cases, 'encourages pupils to switch from the use of cannabis . . . that can be traced a relatively long time after use, to drugs that are cleared from the body much more quickly, including heroin.' In other words, if you're looking for a surefire way to persuade little Johnny to switch from pot to binge drinking or crank, look no further than student drug testing.

Some experts also say they're concerned that suspending students who test positive for drugs from participating in extracurricular activities may cause students undue and long-term harm.

According to Professor Howard Taras, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health, '[Drug] 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.'

Lastly, student drug testing does not come cheap. For example, school officials in Dublin, Ohio, recently jettisoned the school's $35,000-per-year drug-testing program because it proved to be anything but cost-effective. Of the 1,473 students tested, only 11 tested positive for illegal drugs. That's a cost of $3,200 per positive student - hardly the sort of price tag that can be justified in an era of local and federal belt-tightening.

While rising rates of alcohol and substance abuse among young people is alarming, suspicionless student drug testing is not the answer. It is a humiliating, invasive practice that runs contrary to the principles of due process. It compels teens to submit evidence against themselves and to forfeit their privacy rights as a necessary requirement for attending school.

Rather than presuming our schoolchildren innocent of illicit activity, suspicionless drug testing presumes them guilty until they prove themselves innocent. Is this truly the message we wish to send to young people?

Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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