Pubdate: Sat, 17 May 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company
Author: Greg Winter
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)
Bookmark: (Youth)


Drug testing in schools does not deter student drug use any more than doing 
no screening at all, the first large-scale national study on the subject 
has found.

The United States Supreme Court has twice empowered schools to test for 
drugs - first among student athletes in 1995, then for those in other 
extracurricular activities last year. Both times, it cited the role that 
screening plays in combating substance abuse as a rationale for impinging 
on whatever privacy rights students might have.

But the new federally financed study of 76,000 students nationwide, by far 
the largest to date, found that drug use is just as common in schools with 
testing as in those without it.

"It suggests that there really isn't an impact from drug testing as 
practiced," Dr. Lloyd D. Johnston, a study researcher from the University 
of Michigan, said. "It's the kind of intervention that doesn't win the 
hearts and minds of children. I don't think it brings about any 
constructive changes in their attitudes about drugs or their belief in the 
dangers associated with using them."

The prevalence of drug use in schools that tested for drugs and those that 
did not was so similar that it surprised the researchers, who have been 
paid by the government to track student behavior for nearly 30 years and 
whose data on drug use is considered highly reliable.

The study, published last month in The Journal of School Health, a 
peer-reviewed publication of the American School Health Association, found 
that 37 percent of 12th graders in schools that tested for drugs said they 
had smoked marijuana in the last year, compared with 36 percent in schools 
that did not. In a universe of tens of thousands of students, such a slight 
deviation is statistically insignificant, and it means the results are 
essentially identical, the researchers said.

Similarly, 21 percent of 12th graders in schools with testing said they had 
used other illicit drugs like cocaine or heroin in the last year, while 19 
percent of their counterparts in schools without screening said they had 
done so.

The same pattern held for every other drug and grade level. Whether looking 
at marijuana or harder drugs like cocaine and heroin, or middle school 
pupils compared with high school students, the fact that their schools 
tested for drugs showed no signs of slowing their drug use.

While it is possible that schools that imposed screening had had even 
higher rates of use before, the researchers said that was extremely 
unlikely because they controlled for behavioral factors normally associated 
with substance abuse like truancy and parental absence.

"Obviously, the justices did not have the benefit of this study," said 
Graham Boyd, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the 
case against drug testing before the Supreme Court last year. "Now there 
should be no reason for a school to impose an intrusive or even insulting 
drug test when it's not going to do anything about student drug use."

But other researchers contend that the urinalysis conducted by schools is 
so faulty, the supervision so lax and the opportunities for cheating so 
plentiful that the study may prove only that schools do a poor job of testing.

"That's like blaming antibiotics if you didn't take them properly, or 
blaming the doctor who prescribed them," said Dr. Linn Goldberg, a 
professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, who 
conducted a much more limited study on two Oregon high schools last year. 
It found that intensive, Olympic-grade testing could reduce drug use.

Still, Dr. Goldberg argued, even his study did not prove that testing 
limits consumption. "Schools should not implement a drug testing program 
until they're proven to work," he added. "They're too expensive. It's like 
having experimental surgery that's never been shown to work."

Most schools have shied away from drug testing. The Michigan study found 
that only 18 percent of the nation's schools did any kind of screening from 
1998 to 2001, most of them high schools. While a broad swath of the school 
population may be screened, from honor students in extracurricular 
activities to students on probation, most of the testing focuses on those 
who are suspected of using drugs.

Such tests do not violate the Fourth Amendment safeguards against 
unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court has ruled, because 
children have limited expectations of privacy, the tests are not overly 
intrusive and because they are likely to deter substance abuse. Writing for 
the court in 1995, Justice Antonin Scalia described the "efficacy of this 
means for addressing the problem" of student drug use as "self-evident."

Seven years later, Justice Clarence Thomas restated the court's opinion, 
ruling that "the need to prevent and deter the substantial harm of 
childhood drug use provides the necessary immediacy for a school testing 

Though the study may call those presumptions into question, it does not 
mean that drug testing is any less constitutional, said the National School 
Boards Association, which filed legal briefs in support of testing to the 
court. Given the other constitutional grounds for testing elaborated by the 
justices, particularly the role of schools as guardians of their students' 
well-being, the association maintains that schools should continue to test, 
if they so choose.

"I'm not saying school districts should ignore that study," Naomi Gittins, 
an association lawyer, said. "I think it's a good idea that schools take a 
look at that study. It's an important decision that they're making."

The study would not have swayed Randall Aultman, former principal of tiny 
Vernonia High School in Oregon whose decision to screen its athletes led to 
the Supreme Court's 1995 ruling. Drug use was so rampant among his students 
that he says "we had to do something drastic," without even knowing whether 
it was legal, much less effective.

"I don't think that drug testing works all the time, in all situations," 
Mr. Aultman said. "And the truth is there were many kids who said, 'Yeah, 
we quit while we were in season and once the season was over we went back 
to using drugs.' "

Even so, Mr. Aultman added, other students quit for life, and "at that 
time, it really worked."

The Michigan study was financed by grants from the National Institute on 
Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, as well as the 
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports drug testing in schools. It 
collected data on testing policies at 722 middle and high schools, and drew 
on anonymous surveys from 30,000 8th graders, 23,000 10th graders and 
23,000 12th graders, an enormous statistical undertaking that may not be 
matched for years. The researchers assume that some will lie about their 
drug use, but say that the effects are insignificant.

There is at least one important limitation of the Michigan study. It does 
not differentiate between schools that do intensive, regular random 
screening and those that test only occasionally. As a result, it does not 
rule out the possibility that the most vigilant schools do a better job of 
curbing drug use.

"One could imagine situations where drug testing could be effective, if you 
impose it in a sufficiently draconian manner - that is, testing most kids 
and doing it frequently," Dr. Johnston, the Michigan researcher, said. 
"We're not in a position to say that wouldn't work."

The Supreme Court, however, has not ruled on whether testing all students, 
even those not in extracurricular activities, is constitutional.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse said it would take several more such 
studies before any certainty about the efficacy of testing can be 
established. More research is being explored, it said, but the results are 
probably years away.

Even so, some took the study as proof that education is the most effective 
weapon against substance abuse. They said that while screening may give 
rise to a culture of resistance, in which students take pride in beating 
the test, the best results come from convincing children that most children 
do not use drugs, making drugs less appealing.

"At best, testing could be a band-aid, and certainly not an answer," Tom 
Hedrick, director and founding member of the Partnership for a Drug-Free 
America, said.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager