Drug-testing is the wrong tool for helping students

Published 4:20 pm Tuesday, January 15, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

A proposal made to the Boyle County Board of Education to begin randomly drug testing students is clearly being pursued with the right motives. But it is nonetheless concerning.

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The idea is still preliminary and could change substantially before an actual policy is presented to the board in March. The most extreme version of the idea would require all students at Boyle County High School (and perhaps even Boyle County Middle School) who do anything voluntary beyond regular school attendance to be subjected to random drug tests.

That would include all students who drive to school, as well as students who participate in athletics, cheerleading, band, FFA, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, forensics, drama club … you get the idea.

We like the motivation and the goal of the proposal: to identify drug problems early on, when intervention can be more effective and before drugs have a chance to really ruin a person’s life.

But we run into a lot of questions that don’t have good answers when we start to probe how such a proposal might work and whether it could be effective.

Since it would be unconstitutional to drug-test all students, the district can only make drug tests a mandatory condition of any extracurricular activity that’s not required. That means around a fourth of students would not be subjected to drug tests. That same group — students who ride the bus and don’t participate in athletics or clubs — is probably the group most at-risk for drug use.

Many parents know one of the best ways to keep kids off of drugs is to give them something positive to do that occupies their time instead of drugs. When students don’t have that positive activity to hold their attention, they’re more likely to consider trying drugs.

The proposed policy would not be benefiting the group that could benefit the most. Instead, the district would be invading the privacy of only its most active students, the ones who are already participating in ways that suggest they are growing into productive adults.

Worse, imagine what might happen with students who are marginally active in the school beyond mandatory activities. What if there are students already using drugs or considering using for the first time, who also participate in one extracurricular activity? This policy would create an incentive for those students to quit their extracurricular activity — the one thing they might be doing that is limiting their drug use or preventing them from using drugs altogether — so their drug use can’t be detected.

The potential fallout from a positive drug test is also problematic. A student who tests positive could have their privileges of participating in extracurricular activities restricted or taken away. They could also be required to participate in treatment or rehabilitation services.

Taking away extracurricular activities that do not involve drug use because of drug use is not an appropriate punishment; in fact, it could give them more free time during which they might turn more toward drugs. Treatment and rehabilitation are excellent services to have available, but such services work best when the participants volunteer, when it’s their choice.

The proposed policy makes the mistake of using the wrong tool for the job. Drug testing is a stick, not a carrot. It is a punishment administered most commonly to paroled criminals and pretrial defendants — people who may have demonstrated a problem with drugs, people who might need a stick to bring them back onto a good path.

Our students, our children, are not criminals. Carrots, not sticks, are the right tool. Students need to be given more opportunities for non-drug-related activities. They need chances to build relationships with peers and adults who are positive role models. They need to feel they can trust figures of authority and tell them things about their lives without fear. They need free access to voluntary treatment programs and support groups if they stumble into drug use.

Instituting random drug tests might catch a handful of drug uses out of hundreds or thousands every year. But it also tells students they are not trusted by school authorities. As a result, they will feel they cannot trust school authorities. That’s a recipe for more drug use, not less.

Instead, the school district should look into policies that offer support and alternatives to students who may be at-risk of drug use. The focus should be on caring for students, not catching them in the act.