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Should School Systems Mandate Random Drug Testing for Students?

Adult woman speaking with a teenager boy

On August 1 of this year, a Google search of the phrase “school drug testing” in the “News” category turned up two stories posted within the previous 24 hours. One was an Oklahoma-based column entitled “Here’s why random drug testing is a bad school policy” and the other was a high school sports article in a Kentucky newspaper with the headline “Drug testing for athletes doing its job.”

The takeaway is that random drug testing in U.S. middle and high schools is a controversial topic. If you are a parent, you may have a lot of questions about drug testing, such as “Is it effective?”, “Is it smart?”, or “Is it legal?”

Drug Testing Legality and Processes 

Regarding that last question, there is no federal law on the books that specifically mentions drug testing in schools. However, a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way to allow the practice for athletes, while another ruling seven years later helped expand testing for all students in extracurricular activities. A few schools have even begun requiring drug tests for other groups of students (like those who drive to campus or attend a school dance).

The stated goal for random drug testing of students is to protect these kids from experimenting with drug use in middle school or high school and/or suffering from the deleterious effects of substance misuse or addiction. Theoretically, a student who tests positive for drug use should only be referred for counseling, drug education programs, and/or follow-up testing instead of receiving punitive discipline.

Testing procedures in schools can vary widely, but they tend to require obtaining samples of hair, urine, or sweat. The kits are then sent to a lab which screens the samples for between five and ten different drugs, including marijuana, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, and sometimes MDMA or GHB (but not alcohol, which breaks down in the body relatively quickly).

Pros and Cons of Drug Testing

There are numerous arguments for and against the practice of random drug testing in secondary schools.

Pros:

  • Helps detect drug use before dependence sets in
  • Helps keep school drug-free for all kids
  • Reduces odds of drug-related violence on campus
  • Gives students an excuse to withstand peer pressure to use drugs
  • Boosts chances of students’ success in future

Cons:

  • Testing can be expensive
  • Some students can “cheat” the tests
  • Often disproportionally affects minority students
  • Kids often receive harsh punishments anyway
  • Suspension from extracurricular activities after a positive test can often push students more toward substance abuse

Does Drug Testing Work?

What about the most important question of all? What is the effectiveness of drug testing programs in discouraging drug use? Do they accomplish what they set out to do?

Syringes in a pile.

Unfortunately, the relevant research provides mixed results. Some studies show success in decreasing substance use among certain student populations, such as girls in “positive-climate” schools or student-athletes for past-year drug use. Other studies find no change in students’ future intentions to use drugs or a drop in marijuana use in conjunction with an increase in other illicit drug consumption. (For what it is worth, the American Academy of Pediatrics is staunchly against drug testing in schools.)

Therefore, there is no easy answer for parents about whether random drug testing in schools is a good idea. If your school or educational district is considering implementing drug testing, be sure to get all the information you can about the procedures, penalties, and refusal rights pertaining to the specific program. It is also wise to check with local and state laws to see if the school’s regulations conflict with them in any way.

Everybody wants to prevent drug misuse in high school and middle school so that substance use disorder will not ravage the lives of young adults. Whether drug testing in schools becomes a staple in that battle in the years to come is anybody’s guess.

If you are concerned about substance misuse in your family,  contact us today.

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