by Rob Taylor
In an effort to follow a national trend, at the beginning of the current school year, The Bandon School Board instituted a mandatory drug-testing policy for students who participate in sports and other extracurricular activities sponsored by the Oregon School Activities Association. Many in the community thought the school district overreached in taking this action because there is little evidence that student drug testing reduces drug use. At the same time, the policy is intrusive, expensive, and undermines parental control.
The results of a national survey recently published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence revealed that students who participated in sports while undergoing mandatory drug testing stopped using only during the testing period. Students who were already using pretest went back to taking drugs when the testing period stopped at the end of the season. In short, mandatory drug testing had little to no long-term effect on drug use among student athletes. In some cases, students simply substituted drinking hard alcohol for smoking pot, because alcohol does not stay in the blood stream as long, reducing the odds of a positive test. Interestingly, most school districts test for marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and opiates when research shows that today the drugs students most commonly abuse are inhalants, prescription drugs, and steroids.
In 2008, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously found that a local school district’s policy of suspicionless urine testing for students engaged in extracurricular athletic activities was unconstitutional under the state’s privacy laws, noting that, “forcing student athletes to submit their urine to officials is a degrading practice that treats student athletes as suspects.” Since then, there have been numerous other cases that have been brought across the country giving voice to parents’ concerns that student drug testing is both ineffective and unethical.
Parents often are under pressure to find things for their children to do after school and extracurricular programs can alleviate stressful situations at home. Most of the students who participate in afterschool programs have far less free time to ingest illicit drugs, since most of these activities require upwards of 21 hours a week in supervised participation. There are circumstances where the threat of a drug test may scare away the very students who need the focus offered in a structured program. These activities may be the only thing providing a nurturing atmosphere that prevents children from turning to drugs in the future, so why risk losing their trust from the beginning?
The school administrators will promise that the results of the drug tests will be confidential. However, there are too many people involved in administering the tests to guarantee privacy and nothing is secret in small towns. What happens if the student who fails a drug test is not a serious drug abuser, but a teenager who wanted to play sports, did a dumb thing, and is now humiliated and stigmatized by a process outside of parental control? What if the test result is a false positive?
School boards do not thoroughly explain to the parents the legal ramifications of a student failing a drug test. Under the law, government agencies doing a background check can request a student’s academic record, including the results of any drug tests given to the student. A failed test may result in a student’s disqualification for certain military commissions, security clearances and other sensitive positions, resulting in real limitations on career choices. Is this policy worth undermining parents’ authority and their ability to protect their child’s future?
Schools used to teach The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They are supposed to give children an education, not a criminal record. Students are people, not suspects, so school boards and administrators must take into consideration the long-lasting fallout from “feel-good” policies that, in the end, do more harm than good. They also have an obligation to consider alternatives to drug testing that emphasize drug education, counseling and extracurricular programs. Our common goal should be to build trust between schools and students and help prepare students to become responsible citizens, not treat them as possible criminals.
Unfortunately, without strong, vigilant parents, there are few mechanisms in place to stop the injustices and harm caused by failed school policies. Drug abuse is a serious concern. We need to work cooperatively with school authorities and be smarter about how to fight it. Informed parents backed by a concerned local community should unite and take immediate action to end mandatory drug testing of students. Let us find a better way.
Rob Taylor is the founder of CoosCountyWatchdog.com a network of individual government watchdogs.