Does random drug, alcohol testing turn school into prison?

A Catholic High School outside Chicago is randomly testing students for evidence of drug or alcohol use. Is a reduction in substance abuse worth the big brother atmosphere?

Courtesy San Vincent Media/You Tube
St. Viator High School is testing students hair samples for evidence of recent drug and alcohol use, AP reports.

In an effort to battle substance abuse, a suburban Chicago Catholic high school has begun randomly testing its students for evidence of drug or alcohol consumption. The Associated press reports on the testing at Saint Viator High School:

Administrators say they plan to test 10 to 20 students a week by taking about 60 strands of hair that will be tested by a California lab.

The analysis will show if a student consumed drugs or alcohol in the past 90 days and how much they ingested.

Saint Viator is not alone at instituting a testing regime – in Cincinnati, the all-boys Catholic La Salle High School will begin mandatory testing of all students in the 2014-2014 school year.

What these schools' administrators have managed to set up is something reminiscent of philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon – a prison that relies on a central tower to observe inmates. The guards would be invisible to the prisoners (thanks to one-way mirrors, or another such trick). Because anyone could (in theory) be under observation at any point in time, bad behavior should drop to zero – there's no certain way to get away with bad acts if you can never be sure whether the warden's watching.

At St. Viator the panopticon is enforced through unpredictable testing that could strike anyone (rather than the gaze of hidden cameras or guards that could see anyone), but the concept is similar: there's no safe way to misbehave.

The good part about sending your kids into an environment where they might be randomly tested for drugs and alcohol at any given moment: they're (presumably) less likely to drink or do drugs, although even that is debatable – this Global Post story suggests that there may be no gains, although there's always a fair question to be raised about whether schools that do drug testing have a slightly elevated drug use rate because the testing actually made the problem worse, or because the school had more of a problem to begin with. From the Post:

One ground-breaking study, conducted by the University of Michigan in 2003, found that schools with drug-testing policies had slightly higher rates of student drug use. At schools with drug-testing policies, the study found that 21 percent of students were using drugs, compared to 19 percent at schools without policies.

A study by the National Center for Education Evaluation confirmed those results. Another recent study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, found that policies didn't stop male students, and drug testing only worked as a deterrent for female students in schools with positive student-teacher relationships and clear rules.

And the potentially bad part about starting a testing regime at your school: you've effectively reinforced the feeling that school is prison, stripping away another layer of privacy and presumed innocence from all pupils.

My middle school and high school didn't test me and my peers for alcohol, but it still felt like a prison with regimented activities, security guards, mandatory work, and a jailer/jailed divide, complete with stool pigeons and hard cases. That false divide between teachers, administrators, and students was one of the worst aspects of school – we should have, in theory, been working together to teach, learn, and prepare for independent life, but we spent too much time in conflict: teachers had to act like cops, and kids would (of course!) cut class, or cheat, or abuse drugs and alcohol.

The relationship between authority and good behavior is always complex: abolish the rules, and you get anarchy, but squeeze too tightly, and your students start to slip through your fingers. The conversation no doubt will continue.

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