High School Drug Tests Not A Panacea

By Mr. J · May 28, 2006 ·
  1. Mr. J

    Nearly 6,300 central Illinois students recently made their DARE pledge to steer clear of drugs and alcohol. Despite such substance-education programs, federal surveys indicate that well over half of adolescents try booze and nearly half dabble in drugs.

    The challenge for schools, then, is to target students when they're old enough to decide but young enough to fear punishment. To this end, East Peoria High School will randomly drug-test teens who participate in extracurricular activities.

    The School Board's 4-3 vote earned accolades, but it also merits a word of caution. Testing is not a panacea and is no substitute for attentive, responsible parents.

    The school's desire to intervene is understandable. Besides booze and pot, there's an ever-expanding menu of teen temptations, especially prescription drugs. East Peoria High can check for such substances through saliva strips or urine tests and pledges to do so on a "purely random" basis.

    As a public school, East Peoria can't survey its entire student body of 1,300, as private Peoria Notre Dame does. The 500 kids it can test - - those involved in baseball, chess, cheerleading, etc. - may be least likely to experiment with drugs. Those points were raised in a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case. Though the justices narrowly upheld the legality of random urine tests, dissenters worried they might discourage participation, which can itself be a drug deterrent. The case also raised important privacy issues.

    Indeed, what happens after a positive test? East Peoria says the punishment will be lost extracurricular eligibility. Kids will not face criminal prosecution. But attorney Jay Greening, who helped draft the school's policy, says it remains constitutionally unclear whether administrators could call police based solely on a test result. He asserts that tests will remain "absolutely confidential," which is appropriate.

    East Peoria will be one of only three dozen Illinois school districts with mandatory substance screenings, which suggests that 95 percent of the others lack either the resources or inclination to follow suit. Though it may be legal to test, that doesn't necessarily make it right or effective. A 2003 University of Michigan survey of 76,000 adolescents found almost identical rates of substance use regardless of whether their schools tested.

    We appreciate that these policies can give parents peace of mind. Still, we prefer the voluntary, tough-love approach of Bartonville, which distributes at-home drug and alcohol tests to families. Engaged moms and dads are the most effective deterrent. To the degree schools can back them up in a fair, caring and constitutional way, it merits community support. Still, it's a shame it has come to this.

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