Steps toward more drug testing in schools

A Massachusetts proposal unveiled this week giving schools the option to test students for drugs - provided a parent gives consent - is intended to crack down on drugs in a state with one of the nation's highest rates of teen substance abuse.

If the plan passes, Massachusetts will join a growing list of states and officials considering testing as a tool to counter drugs in schools - a measure widely supported by the Bush administration. The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy just wrapped up a four-state summit on the values of student drug testing.

The Massachusetts plan and similar proposals have been lauded by those who say any help a school or community can offer is another small victory in the war on drugs. But many others decry random testing, saying there is not sufficient proof that it lowers drug use, that such policies create a culture of distrust, and that any gains from the programs pale in comparison to their costs.

Still, many states and schools are considering the measures:

• In Arizona, a local sheriff sent out hundreds of letters to school officials urging testing after an investigation showed that drug dealers were targeting Scottsdale teenagers.

• School-board members in an Oklahoma district voted this week to test students starting next fall. David Meara, president of the board of Enid Public Schools, says parental objections did not involve privacy or the new program's validity: "The concerns raised by parents were that the policy didn't go far enough, that all students and employees should be tested."

• A Mississippi district also voted this month to implement testing policies for students involved in extracurricular activities. The constitutionality of such programs was affirmed in a 2002 Supreme Court decision.

Data on the number of schools that are testing teens is not widely available. A 2003 University of Michigan study showed that 5 percent of schools tested student athletes, and only 2 percent of schools tested participants in extracurricular activities. Some 18 percent of schools tested for any reason, including suspicion of drug use.

This is a minority of schools, to be sure, but experts say the trend is growing. They suggest that more schools may be paying attention to drug use in the wake of recent high-profile cases of steroid use among student athletes. Others say Mr. Bush's support - he advocated testing in his 2004 State of the Union address - is behind the activity.

"The Bush administration has really taken this up as their sound-bite solution to adolescent drug use," says Jennifer Kern, coordinator of the "Drug Testing Fails Our Youth" campaign for the Drug Policy Alliance.

The Supreme Court ruling in 2002 upheld a public school's right to test students in extracurricular activities. Prior to that, the court had weighed in only on drug tests for athletes. Now, schools are allowed to test on a voluntary basis, as was proposed in Massachusetts.

To supporters of drug testing, such programs could combat the nation's drug problems in the long run. John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House, says that most addiction can be traced back to adolescence. "If we can change that, we can change the face of substance abuse in the US for generations to come," he says. "[Testing] is a powerful tool at critical time in young people's lives."

The Massachusetts plan - part of a $9.1 million initiative to fight substance abuse in the state - would allow schools that opt into it to craft their own guidelines. For many, that can't come too soon: While teen drug use is down overall, it's up for some drugs and in some areas. Boston, for example, faces a surge in problems with OxyContin - emergency-room visits related to the drug have grown by 153 percent in the past year, according to Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey (R ) of Massachusetts.

The plan that she unveiled this week also includes new legislation to combat methamphetamine manufacturing, case management for at-risk youth, and improved cooperation among state agencies through a new group called the Interagency Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention. The plan would also create two "recovery" schools for students coming from drug-treatment centers.

Many have hailed it as a crucial step forward. "Random student drug testing has a history of working," says Herbert Levine, superintendent of the public schools in Salem, Mass., and the father of a recovering OxyContin addict. His district is exploring its own antidrug campaign, which may include testing. He points to programs in New Jersey and Oregon, in which drug use went down among students in schools that tested, as evidence of success.

Dr. Levine says some parents and teachers have been concerned about the tests' validity and students' privacy rights. Though he calls himself an advocate of privacy, he balks at the notion that it could be more important than fighting drug use. "How much privacy does a 14-year-old need?" asks Levine. "At some point, controls need to be there."

A 10th grader at Fenway High School in Boston, who did not want his name used, says testing would not deter his peers from using drugs: "They would just stop coming to school, and that would make it worse.... We have a right to an education."

Opponents contend that testing has not been proven to reduce drug use. The University of Michigan study, the largest to date, showed no concrete decline. And according to a report coauthored by the Drug Policy Alliance, testing can be costly - averaging $21,000 for a school testing 500 students.

Mr. Walters say his office has received $10 million, and requested $25 million for next year, for school testing, but is also encouraging schools to seek support from their communities. "Tests cost from $10 to $40, less than what most secondary students spend on CDs in a couple months," he says. "What is your kids' safety worth?" he says.

But cost is only one concern. Ms. Kern says parents worry about their children being searched without cause, and says that teacher-student relationships can be the best deterrent against risky behavior. Drug testing, the argument goes, can undercut that trust.

Supporters insist the effort is not punitive, and that programs are intended to be coupled with education and treatment. "Our policy is designed to be helpful to these kids, not to punish them," says Mr. Meara in Oklahoma. "It's to provide an intervention and hopefully help these parents in dealing with substance abuse."

In Massachusetts, many say they are relieved that after years of cutbacks, the state has finally come forward with a comprehensive antidrug campaign.

Constance Peters, vice president of substance abuse at the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Corporation of Massachusetts, hails it as a tardy but timely advance: "We haven't made progress, we've gone backwards. That's why we are so excited, because this is a big step forward."

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