throwback thursday

Throwback Thursday: Should Schools Drug Test Students?

Issue: Should Schools Drug Test Students?

Drug testing is the practice of randomly screening for traces or metabolites of commonly abused drugs to identify drug users, typically for the purpose of punishment or medical treatment. Drug testing students in schools is a contentious issue. Schools may wish to drug test students to ensure a safe environment, and to identify students who may harm themselves or others through drug use. However, drug testing can undermine student trust and participation in school activities, while also being costly to schools. 

A study conducted by Susanne James-Burdumy of Mathematica Policy Research compared a sample of schools implementing Mandatory Random Student Drug Testing (MRSDT) versus schools that did not implement MRSDT, and looked at the effects of drug testing on: students who participated in competitive activities such as sports, spillover effects on students who did not participate in these activities, student intent for future drug use, etc. While student reported drug use was lower in schools which tested for drugs compared to control schools, there was no impact of drug testing on future drug use or drug use by students who did not participate in competitive programs (spillover effects). A strength of the study was that it was conducted under real world conditions, including the individual variation between schools conducting drug testing. While variation within a treatment group is typically seen as a weakness as it increases the likelihood of confounding variables, in this case, the allowance of this variance rather than a more tightly regulated regimen gives a more realistic view of how these programs may work if actually implemented. 

An unavoidable weakness is that not every student was able to be surveyed due to a lack of consent. Students who use drugs or whose parents use drugs may be less likely to consent to drug testing. While this weakness could apply to both treatment and control schools, students who know their school implements drug testing may be less likely to report drug use. While this study reported no negative effects on student attitudes and participation in school activities, this is known to not have been the case in other studies, and thus this study may not be entirely representative. Drug testing was always conducted along with other drug use prevention programs, which were also present in control schools. The effects of this education cannot be separated from the effects of the drug testing, which is another weakness. 

In contrast to this study, a review of multiple studies on drug testing and testimonials from parents and educators by Jennifer Kern has determined that drug testing students is not effective. Kern concludes that: drug testing is not an effective deterrent to drug use in young adults, that drug testing is more costly than is feasible, that drug testing exposes schools to legal liability, that drug testing comes with risks of false positives and does not always identify the students who abuse drugs the most, and that drug testing can encourage students to turn to substances such as alcohol which are not typically identified in standard drug testing. Drug testing can also erode trust between students and educators, as well as between parents and students.

Kern did not conduct her own study, but rather reviewed the conclusions of multiple other studies. A strength of the review is the breadth of examples, from multiple school districts and states, as well as the extent of specific statistics, including cost-benefit analysis of drug testing and a deep drive into the legality of drug testing. Another strength is that the review does not just work to argue against drug testing, but gives alternatives to reduce drug use such as reality-based drug education. A weakness of the paper however, is that it largely relies on anecdotal evidence. While the results of some significant studies are included, the methods of those studies are not included and much of the rest of the paper relies on testimonials from educators and parents, including a parent whose son tested with a false positive for cocaine, and thus had reason to be biased against drug testing for distressing her child. 

While both studies have their strengths and weaknesses, I am more inclined to side with the position of not drug testing students. James-Burdumy did not have enough evidence to show that drug testing has a significant positive impact on students. While a limited reduction in drug use was shown, it did not extend to students who were not drug tested nor to future drug use, and came at the expense of possible harm to student mental wellbeing, and was conducted with a relatively small sample size. Kern’s review shows that there can be significant harms to student education and mental health, and to schools. Drug testing is costly, comes with legal and ethical ambiguities when it comes to enforcing policies, and can cause student education to suffer by pulling them out of class and creating an atmosphere of distrust. Many schools lack funding as it is, and drug testing can pull funding from programs and activities which can otherwise prevent students from turning to drug use in the first place. For these reasons, as well as the fact that there are alternatives to drug testing to reduce student use and abuse of illicit drugs, drug testing seems to not do enough good to be worth doing.

References
Miller, D. (2019). Taking Sides Clashing Views In Drugs And Society. Mcgraw-Hill Education, 370-397.

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