The Costs of Random Drug Testing

The Costs of Random Drug Testing

School districts: Looking for a surefire way to alienate students, pacify parents, and grossly invade privacy, all while staying on the happy side of the law? Try random drug tests! According to a recent U.S. Supreme court ruling, public schools can use compliance with drug testing as a condition for participation in extracurricular activities. And as a former high school extracurricular-activity junkie, I take that decision pretty personally.

I imagine the following scenario: It is the beginning of orchestra class. We are hauling our instruments out of closets, dragging music stands across the linoleum, when a nurse appears at the door. She calls out the names of several students and tells them that they have been randomly selected for this month's drug tests. They put down their violins and trudge to the door, where she puts little plastic cups in their hands and sends them off to the bathrooms (where, incidentally, the stall doors don't lock--if they're even on the hinges). The students probably feel embarassed, nervous, angry. But the really damaging thing--the dangerous thing--is that any student foolish enough to think that her school respected her is, suddenly and conclusively, proved wrong. The mutual respect that is the foundation of positive relationships with faculty, administrators, and counselors--relationships that might actually be valuable to students, that might make an impact on their lives rather than simply offer token reassurance to their parents--is lost.

I imagine what I, the poster child of extracurricular activities, might do should I or my classmates be excused from class to go pee in a cup. Maybe I would take the cup, spit in it, and hand it right back. Or maybe I would quit my extracurriculars in protest. But, as much as the court relies on the voluntary nature of extracurriculars, participation in art, athletics, and music is an essential part of a good high school education. Can you graduate from high school without ever participating in an extracurricular? Sure. But you'll miss out on a lot: exploring your own creativity and talents, forging friendships with students and teachers, building up the kind of resume that's become a necessity for admission to competitive colleges and universities. Some students may choose to take private music lessons, pay for theater classes, or join club sports teams, but these options are not financially feasible for all families. "Voluntary" really isn't so voluntary after all.

Why are random drug tests, obviously an invasion of privacy, allowed in schools at all? The same reason that random locker searches are--because the right to an education, which necessitates a safe school environment, trumps other constitutionally assured rights. Even if we can accept that drug use is a major threat to education, though, random drug testing of the after-school-activities set may have little impact on students' drug habits. First, it is targetting the wrong crowd--all kinds of students do drugs, from the valedictorian on down, but still the stereotype holds true that the kids who aren't involved are more likely than the debate-team types to be using drugs. Random drug testing of involved students runs the risk of dissuading students from joining the band, the newspaper, or the chess club in the first place.

Interviews of students have shown that random drug testing may even be counterproductive. Students know that marijuana will show up on a drug test for a month or so after they smoke, while other drugs, drugs that are actually much more dangerous, stay in their system for only a day or two. Which ones will they use? The stronger ones that won't get them in trouble. If pot is a gateway drug, random drug testing pushes smokers right over the threshhold.

I am not a lawyer, and I can't say whether or not the Supreme Court's decision was legally correct. But it is certainly not educationally correct. Ultimately, the decision to test or not to test lies with individual school districts. They will have to decide which is the real threat to education: drug use, or the sense of apathy and alienation that allows it to take over students' lives. If schools boards treat their students with suspicion rather than respect, students will withdraw from relationships with teachers and counselors. And if we really want to help students, these relationships are the best tool there is.


The author, Class of '97, was a member of the orchestra, appeared in school plays, volunteered for the literary magazine, co-founded a student political club, participated in leadership seminars, briefly worked for the school newspaper, and was a member of a Future Problem Solving team. Her resume peaked at age 17.

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