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February 3, 2005 - The Journal Gazette (IN)

OPED: School Drug Testing Less Effective Than Parenting

By Dr. Henry David Abraham (Note: Dr. Abraham is a consultant and lecturer to the Department of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School. His most recent book is "What's a Parent to Do? Straight Talk about Drugs and Alcohol."

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More than half of our kids use an illegal substance before they graduate from high school. If children are subjected to random drug testing, goes the logic, testing might stop their drug use, or at least serve as a red flag to their parents who can then turn the kids around.

But random drug testing doesn't work in the way that its advocates hope it will. Random drug tests do not answer the critical questions of how much, or even what, a kid has been taking, or how often. Testing does not discriminate between kids who experiment and kids who are seriously involved with drugs. Testing can be inaccurate. A crafty child can sabotage it. Testing ignores the most medically devastating drugs: tobacco and alcohol.

But most instructive of all, scientific data show that random drug testing does not reduce drug use. A 2003 survey of 722 secondary American schools involving 76,000 students by the University of Michigan found virtually identical rates of drug use in schools that have drug testing and schools that do not.

The problem with random testing is that not all of our kids use drugs, and even the ones who are at greatest danger are in the minority. So should we treat all kids as guilty until proven innocent? As a physician who has drug tested patients thousands of times, my response is simple: no drug tests without reasonable suspicion.

People who work with addicts know there are perfectly good reasons for drug testing. Testing helps guide them when an addict is detoxing, or has just taken an overdose. Drug testing tells you important things when the patient can't. Drug testing can be an aid in working with addicts as they flirt with relapse.

In a word, drug testing is a terrific clinical tool. And if you have reason to believe a child is in trouble with drugs, drug testing may be helpful for that particular child.

The trick with drug testing children is to balance the desire to keep our children safe, on the one hand, and protect their rights of privacy and freedom from illegal searches, on the other. Remember, children have rights, too.

In 2002, the Supreme Court heard the case brought by high school student Lindsay Earls against her board of education. As a member of the Tecumseh High School marching band, she was required to submit to random urine checks. Earls knew she was drug free and defended her privacy. She correctly felt that being in a marching band did not automatically put her at risk for drugs. The National Education Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics supported her case.

But in a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled against the high school student. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that schools have a greater interest in protecting children than maintaining their privacy. The four dissenting justices called the drug test program "capricious, even perverse."

The dissenters further noted that the Tecumseh drug testing policy invaded the privacy of students who need deterrence the least, kids motivated to take part in extracurricular activities, while keeping kids at risk away from activities that might actually keep them off of drugs.

Despite the Earls case, there has been no stampede by schools to drug test our kids. One optimistically thinks that common sense may be loose in the land. Variations on drug testing have been proposed, such as having parents "register" their children for random testing in schools. Results would go to the parents, and parents would be educated regarding treatment options.

We're on the right track, but the solution is really far simpler than most people would believe. A clean kid does not need to be drug tested. A kid involved in drugs usually doesn't, either, since a parent can usually see the red flags of drug abuse if they just take a close look. So is there a place for drug testing our kids? Sure, when a parent has suspicion of drug use, or when a kid has something to prove.

Otherwise, the best drug test I know is the hug-and-sniff when they walk through the front door, with a heart to heart for an eye-opener the following morning. The strongest weapon we have to combat drug use in our children is not the chemistry lab, but heads-up parenting.

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