In recent years, the US Department of Education has awarded tens of millions in taxpayer dollars to fund controversial student drug-testing programs in public high schools. The result? Teens who attend schools with “suspicionless” drug-screening programs possess fewer civil liberties than their peers – and are no less likely to use illicit substances.
The most recent assessment, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence (Aug. ’11), measured the impact of school drug-testing programs on a nationally representative sample of 943 high-school students. Investigators reported that the imposition of random drug-screening programs failed to reduce the self-reported use of alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs among male students. The researchers acknowledged that student drug-testing programs were associated with minor reductions in the self-reported drug use of female students, but only among those who attended schools with “positive” environments. By contrast, investigators found that the enactment of drug-testing programs in “negative” school environments was most likely to be associated with “harmful effects on female youth.”
The study’s authors concluded: “The current research expands on previous findings indicating that school drug testing does not in and of itself deter substance use.” Instead, they found that “drug testing should not be undertaken as a stand-alone substance prevention effort” and that “improvements in school climate should be considered before implementing drug testing.”
The study’s conclusions were hardly surprising – or unique. Despite repeated claims that these programs represent a potential “silver bullet” in society’s efforts to reduce adolescent drug abuse, studies evaluating their effectiveness have consistently demonstrated the opposite. In fact, a 2010 study by the US Department of Education found that mandatory, random drug-screening programs “had no statistically significant impacts” upon substance use, either among the students tested or the student body at large, and that “there was no significant difference in self-reported substance use between the treatment and control schools.”
Similarly, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that school drug-testing programs do not reduce self-reported drug use and may even encourage greater risk-taking behaviors among those tested. Investigators from Oregon’s Health Science University conducted the two-year trial, which, to date, remains the only randomized clinical trial to assess the deterrent effect of drug and alcohol testing among high-school athletes. The researchers found that students who underwent random testing did not differ in their self-reported drug use compared to students at neighboring schools who were not enrolled in such programs. Perhaps most disturbingly, the researchers determined that students subjected to random drug testing were more likely to report an “increase in some risk factors for future substance use” compared to students who attended schools without drug and alcohol testing.
Yet despite their consistently poor results, an estimated one-quarter of public schools now employ some form of drug-testing program. But they shouldn’t: Random drug testing is an ineffective, humiliating and invasive practice that undermines the relationships between students and educators and runs contrary to the principles of due process. It compels teens to potentially submit evidence against themselves and forfeit their privacy rights as a necessary requirement for attending school. Rather than presuming teenagers innocent of illicit activity, “suspicionless” drug testing presumes them guilty until they prove themselves innocent. It’s time to end this punitive practice and stop treating students as criminals.