random drug testing

On July 16, the Norman Public Schools board voted to begin a random drug-testing program for high school students participating in “OSSAA sanctioned extracurricular activities.” The presumption is that a random testing policy for students in extracurricular activities will discourage drug and alcohol use while providing a point of early identification and intervention.

Norman is not the only school that drug tests students; the practice is becoming more widespread in Oklahoma. Norman will spend about $20,000 dollars during the upcoming school year on drug testing. In a time where funding for education is scarce, is this really the best use of that money?

Financial concerns aside, the desire to keep students away from drugs and alcohol is a worthy one, but is a student drug-testing policy a good, effective way to achieve that goal? The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes the use of drug testing in schools, citing a lack of evidence showing effectiveness. My own research turned up only a few studies, and those that I did find exhibit conflicting results:

  • One study found a reduced prevalence of drug use among students who were subject to random testing. But it also found those students to be just as likely to “use substances in the next 12 months” as students who were not subject to random testing at all.
  • Another could not establish a causal link between student drug testing and rates of drug use. But it also found evidence of “lower marijuana use in the presence of [student drug testing], and evidence of higher use of illicit drugs other than marijuana.”
  • A 2014 study found that student drug testing wasn’t associated with any change in levels of substance use among students while also finding that positive school climates were associated with reductions in marijuana and cigarette smoking.

So if we also set aside scientifically unanswered questions about the efficacy of student drug testing — whether it works — we can still think about the policy from an ethical perspective. Is random drug testing in the best interest of students? Simply put: Is it right?

The power is in the threat

Coerced drug testing violates human dignity, yet it is a ubiquitous, run-of-the-mill occurrence for people living in the United States today. Most people have likely had one institution or another collect and test their bodily fluids for chemical compounds deemed unacceptable. Despite the ubiquity, it remains nothing less than a gross violation of privacy. Must we subject our children to this violation as well simply because they want to play sports or compete in other school activities?

Policies such as the one approved by Norman Public Schools might have the unintended effect of decreasing involvement in extracurricular activities for students who need them the most. The threat of random drug testing is a barrier to these activities and amounts to little more than an ultimatum to the students, a hard line drawn without consideration for the complex realities of teens who turn to drugs and alcohol. Random drug-testing policies create an atmosphere of distrust between the students and the school.

With a policy of random testing, the school’s default position is that all students are potentially guilty of drug use, and thus they are justified in testing any of them without reasonable suspicion or cause. The school positions itself as an adversary who might at any time demand that a student allow their cheeks to be swabbed and tested for banned substances. Since the tests are done randomly, the power is in the threat.

Keep activities as open as possible

A school should be doing everything it can to build trust between administrators and the families they serve in order to make them feel like school is a safe, loving place to find help and support. If students view the school as an adversary who threatens to push them further to the margin, then the school has failed at that mission.

If schools are a place where students are guilty until proven innocent, where the right to privacy and bodily autonomy is relinquished when they walk through the doors or when they sign up to play basketball, then the school is not treating students with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings. That is the foundation on which a good education is built.

A better way forward might involve empowering parents through education and access to resources so that they can monitor their kids and their kids’ friends for signs of drug or alcohol abuse before it has spiraled out of control. If parents feel that their own child needs to be drug tested, then they would have the ability to make an informed choice on their own.

Competitive sports and other extracurricular activities serve as a support network for students in need as well as an opportunity for them to spend their time in a structured environment. It is vital that these activities are kept as free and as open as possible so that they can continue to provide an outlet for students’ mental, physical and emotional needs. Students’ development into healthy adults depends on their access to diverse, inclusive groups that allow them explore their interests and express themselves.