In a much-anticipated June 27 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that public schools have the right to administer random drug tests to students wishing to participate in extracurricular activities, and that the practice does not infringe on students" Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable searches.
Ironically, Lindsay Earls, the Tecumseh, Okla., student whose challenge to her school"s drug testing policy made it to the nation"s highest court, brought the suit not because she had tested positive for drug use, but because she hadn"t. Earls, an honor roll student involved in a number of extracurricular activities, did not use drugs, and felt the testing invaded her privacy and unfairly cast suspicion on the group of students researchers have found among the least likely to use drugs or alcohol. Like Lindsay, I did not drink or use drugs during my years at Carmel High School for the simple reason that I was too busy. I shuttled between practices for the rowing team, academic team, band and orchestra, club meetings, music lessons and my after-school and weekend job at the public library. Like most of my friends, I would arrive home from school or work in time for a quick dinner before going straight to my room to hit the books until midnight, sometimes later. Even if I had felt like smoking a joint or sneaking some booze from my parents" liquor cabinet, I don"t know when I would have found the time.
Admittedly, I was something of a nerd, and lucky enough to live in a wealthy school district that boasts some of Indiana"s top school facilities and resources. During my high school years, the policy of subjecting students to drug testing as a prerequisite to participate in after-school activities had not yet become commonplace. But even if it had, research from Indiana University"s Prevention Resource Center (IPRC), which studies drug, alcohol and tobacco use around the state, suggests that the extracurricular activities I enjoyed would have been much more effective than random drug testing in preventing me from using drugs.
By 2000, about one-fifth of Indiana"s 294 school districts (including 10 in Central Indiana) had adopted some form of random drug testing policy. Had they seen a report on the practice, commonly referred to as "suspicionless drug testing," published by the IPRC in 1998, they may have thought twice about this costly, unproven prevention strategy.
The IPRC"s director, William Bailey, M.P.H., opens the report with the oft-overlooked observation that the Supreme Court"s upholding of the constitutionality of drug testing does not constitute an endorsement of it as an educational policy. Bailey identifies several areas where the practice of drug testing falls short of - or is even detrimental to - its goal of reducing student drug use.
Bailey questions schools" rationale for making random drug tests a condition of participation in sports and other extracurricular activities. Schools argue - and Justice Breyer concurred in his opinion on the Earls case - that because these activities are optional, students who object to drug testing can simply choose not to participate. But for any student wishing to attend college or apply for scholarships, a well-rounded roster of after-school activities is practically mandatory. Bailey contends that schools should not single out any one group of students - such as athletes - for drug testing, unless there is evidence that those individuals are likely to be using drugs.
The IPRC"s research suggests that, in the case of students participating in extracurricular activities, the converse is true: They are no more likely, and often less likely, than other students to use drugs. The IPRC has identified a number of "protective factors" which lessen the likelihood of youth drug use, and topping the list is involvement in extracurricular activities. Studies show that the vast majority of adolescent drug use occurs from 3-6 p.m., in the unoccupied and unsupervised hours after school finishes and before parents return home from work. It follows, then, that the youth most at risk for using drugs, or who have already experimented with them, are the ones who would most benefit from spending those vulnerable after-school hours engaged in constructive, school-sponsored activities. These at-risk kids are also the ones most likely to be deterred from participating if a random drug test is the price of entry to the playing field, computer lab, play practice or band room.
Bailey also challenges the effectiveness of the drug testing methodology itself. Most schools administer a simple urine test that costs $25-$40 a pop, and catches marijuana and nicotine, but misses alcohol and hard drugs like heroin, ecstasy and cocaine, traces of which disappear quickly from the body. Testing won"t deter serious drug users, Bailey says. Rather, once they learn which drugs are detectable and which aren"t, they"ll just become smarter about what drugs they do and when they do them.
Even testing a small number of students can cost a school several thousand dollars a year, a significant expenditure with very few tangible results - except perhaps the negative effects of surveillance on students" morale. Indianapolis Public Schools administrators have said they will begin considering a drug testing policy for Indianapolis later this year. Funding earmarked for preventing student drug use would be better spent in expanding - not constricting - participation in extracurricular activities for all students.