President Bush used his State of the Union address in late January to announce he was budgeting $23 million to encourage school districts to do pilot student drug testing projects. The line item would be a ten-fold increase over this year's $2 million appropriation, which financed pilot projects in eight school districts. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov) and drug czar John Walters have made expanding student drug testing a "national priority" in this year's anti-drug strategy, and Walters has been hitting the theme wherever he appears.
And Rep. John Peterson (R-PA) has introduced a bill with administration support that would encourage random drug testing of high school students. Until 2002, drug testing was limited to student athletes, but in a Supreme Court decision last year, the court held that such testing could be extended to students involved in extracurricular activities or who sought special privileges, such as parking permits, from school authorities. And according to some interpretations of that decision, the court opened the door for random drug testing of all students.
Clearly a dedicated effort to expand drug testing of school kids is underway. But while the Bush administration drug warriors are leading the charge, if they glance behind them they won't see that many followers. While no one is keeping exact tabs on the number of school districts in the country that have resorted to student drug testing, it appears to be a tiny, probably single digit, percentage of all school districts.
"Nobody in the country has an absolute count," the US Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools program, which would not venture a guess, told DRCNet.
"We're not seeing any wholesale rush to drug testing," said Tom Hutton, staff attorney for the National School Boards Association. "We've seen a few programs that were on hold before the Supreme Court decision get underway, but not much more than that," he told DRCNet. "It's probably less than 10% of all districts," he estimated.
"It is not a big issue with our members," said Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "We talk to our members on a regular basis, and while certain regions of the country are a bit more inclined to move forward than others, we haven't seen a real shift toward drug testing," he told DRCNet.
Similar opinions issue from state school board associations, even in states such as Alabama, where drug testing has been greeted with more enthusiasm than elsewhere. At the slow rate schools are embracing drug testing in Alabama, said Alabama School Board Association staff attorney Susan Salter, it would take ten years for drug testing to cover the entire state. "It has been a slow but steady march toward drug testing ever since the Supreme Court decision," she told DRCNet. "It is probably happening at the rate of about one district a month, although these plans don't always fly. Sometime they don't get a good reception from the community."
So why aren't the school districts embracing drug testing? "Budgets are tight," suggested Hutton. "The money has been talked about, but not appropriated yet, and schools have other priorities," he said. But he also pointed to lingering mistrust of the administration among educators over the No Child Left Behind program, which has caused countless headaches for local administrators. "There is a lot of persuasion coming from the feds, but in the context of No Child Left Behind, if people think there is a little money to do this but lots of strings attached, they won't think it's worth it," he said.
"Principals are like anyone else," said Carr. "Some think it's the best thing to ensure the safety of the kids, but many others have serious concerns over invasion of students' privacy, and principals are worried about anything that could bring them a lawsuit," he said. "While some are gung-ho, many principals are extremely leery of going down that road. And even in places where they might be interested, the funding is not there yet," he said.
Still, drug reformers and civil libertarians are not watching complacently. Late last month, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project kicked off a campaign to block the Bush administration initiative by distributing a booklet, "Making Sense of Student Drug Testing: Why Educators Are Saying No," describing drug testing's many failings and suggesting alternatives to 24,000 school board members and other educational stake-holders in selected states.
"Drug testing is humiliating, costly and ineffective, but it's an easy anti-drug sound bite for the White House," said Judy Appel, Deputy Director of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "'Making Sense...' is for the people and educators across the country who've got to make serious decisions about young people's safety. They need the actual research, not slogans and junk science."
"We think the real push for drug testing will come when that $23 million Bush talked about begins to be disbursed through the Safe and Drug-Free School Act," said DPA's Marsha Rosenbaum, whose involvement with student drug issues includes development of the Safety First (http://www.safety1st.org) alternative drug education and prevention strategy. "Without that money, I don't think it has the kind of allure it will have once funding comes in," she told DRCNet. "It's an expensive logistical nightmare, and schools would just rather not do it."
Also, Rosenbaum suggested, administrators may not see a need for it because they accurately perceive the problem is not severe. "You would think from listening to these proposals that there was a rampant epidemic of out of control kids stumbling around campus all the time, and that's just not true," she said. "The reality is that the problem of kids coming to school intoxicated or running the risk of endangering themselves during extracurricular activities because they're intoxicated is not real."
And there are better alternatives, Rosenbaum said. "Drug abuse prevention is about two things. First it's about good science-based, honest, balanced drug education; and second, it's about forming relationships with adults, with counselors, teachers and parents. It's not rocket science," she said. "Drug testing sounds like the easy way out, but that is so simplistic. What keeps kids from getting into trouble with drugs is not a drug test but a good education, being engaged in school, and having good relationships with parents and other adults."
Read the White House's booklet on student drug testing at http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/drug_testing/ online.