Tox Thursday: High school drug testing

Drug test blank form with Variety of medicinesDrug testing high school students before they are allowed to participate in school-sponsored athletics or other extracurricular activities has been a hot issue dating back to 1995 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against student privacy and upheld the constitutionality of drug testing student athletes. The court upheld the ruling again in 2002, and by 2006 as many as 20% of school districts in the U.S. had adopted a drug testing policy.

While this number has fluctuated over the years, several news stories have recently surfaced about a number of schools adopting new drug testing policies. This includes East Allen County Schools in Ohio, where according to a recent article, the school board recently voted to implement drug testing for all student-athletes, those participating in extracurricular activities, and all students who drive to school.

District leaders said the test will be conducted through an oral swab and that they hope students will get the message that drug use is not condoned, as well as give students another reason to say no to peer-pressure. According to the article, because a student and parent signature are needed before the student can take the drug test, the school board said they cannot compel all students to submit to testing. However, if a student refuses to sign, they cannot participate in extracurricular activities nor can they drive to school.

Students who fail the drug test would be suspended from extracurricular activities and driving to school for a third of the year. On second offense, students would be suspended of those privileges for half of the year, and a year for a third offense. For the fourth offense, career-long suspension will be the case, the article states.

However, when the issue of drug testing high school students comes up, several other issues are brought to the forefront as well. For example, the cost of implementing a drug testing policy is a common concern that arises for many schools interested in implementing a drug testing program. Some schools have been able to take advantage of grants offered by the federal government to help fund testing programs, while others, like East Allen County Schools, will require students to foot the bill.

Along with the cost of testing, the accuracy or quality of the drug test also comes into question. While representatives from drug testing companies are increasingly arranging presentations in front of local school boards to promote their products, cheaper and easy-to-use products oftentimes are most appealing while the more precise, yet more costly methods, are overlooked.

When it comes to data regarding the effectiveness of drug testing in a school setting, there are several mixed reports on the issue. Some statistics show that students are no less likely to use drugs if their school has a drug testing policy in place. However, other reports have shown drug testing to be a deterrent for high school students wishing to participate in extracurricular activities.

For example, one study called The Effectiveness of Mandatory-Random Student Drug Testing, examined seven districts that were awarded grants in 2006 to implement mandatory-random drug testing programs in their 36 high schools. The districts volunteered to be in the program and were spread across seven states.

As stated in a recent article, the evaluation involved more than 4,700 students and compares the substance use reported by those schools randomly assigned to implement the drug testing program, with the substance use reported by students in schools without a drug testing program. The goal of the drug testing program was to reduce student substance use in three ways—by deterring substance use, by detecting substance use, and by having spillover effects on other students in the school as they observe and are influenced by the behavior of their peers.

The study found that 16% of students subject to drug testing reported using substances covered by their district’s testing in the past 30 days, compared with 22% of comparable students in schools without the program. However, it also found that drug testing had no effect on a student’s desire to take drugs in the future nor was there any spillover effect found. In fact, 34% of the students surveyed said that they “definitely will” or “probably will” use drugs in the next 12 months, compared with 33% of comparable students in schools without the program.

In addition, a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was recently released regarding drug testing in high schools and stated the important fact that many tests do not account for alcohol; the drug that many studies show is most favored by high school students, and can be the most hazardous to their health. Instead, the group suggested schools redirect their limited resources and be on the lookout for students with possible drug problems — through their behavior and school performance — and that they try to help them through other means such as education, rather than absorb the cost of a school-wide drug testing program.

Dr. Sharon Levy, a co-author of the report, goes on explain in the article that the evidence in favor of drug testing high school students is very weak and that the tests are unlikely to catch kids who use drugs sporadically, rather than heavily. With high school kids, she states, it’s mainly sporadic use that you’re unsure of and trying to detect.”

However, as is the case with East Allen County Schools, high school officials and athletic directors said something needs to be done about drug abuse at their schools.  The drug test they are implementing will test for amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cocaine, opiates, cannabis, methadone and alcohol.

For now, performance-enhancing drugs will not be tested for at the school, which according to East Allen County School safety manager, Jeff Studebaker, is more of an issue of cost. To test for performance-enhancing drugs the test would increase from $7.96 for an oral swab to between $50 and $150 for a urine test.

Adding performance-type drugs would also make the drug test a moving target as “the performance-enhancing formula is so rapidly changing. (The companies) change the formula to stay ahead of the game,” Studebaker said in the article.

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