Experts cast doubt on drug tests in schools

Drug dog
Officer Lucero Cardenas searches a United South High School classroom with a drug dog, in Laredo, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2005.

Duluth schools are considering a drug testing program despite a recent national study that shows it to be ineffective. The Daily Circuit invited an author of the study and others to discuss the best approach to curbing drug abuse among young people. Some highlights of that conversation:

Dan Romer, on the benefits of a positive climate:
"If they were in a school with a positive climate, they were less likely to start to use marijuana, or to start smoking cigarettes, and in addition they were less likely to escalate their use of cigarettes over the course of the year. On the other hand, drug testing ... had no relationship at all to any drug use whatsoever. Based on that, we concluded that if you compare these two approaches — trying to encourage students to listen to what the teachers think is the right way to behave, which is what happens in a school with a good climate ... they'll be better off in terms of not using drugs than if they're threatened with the possibility of drug testing."

Roger Morgan, on the virtue of drug tests:
"I'm not opposed to a positive climate, but one way you get a positive climate is to eliminate drug use. Kids are just humans. We've used random drug testing in the military, which cut drug use by 90 percent. The workplace, most big companies in America use it, and cut it 60 to 70 percent. Having a good drug-testing program does not mean you don't have a positive climate."

Dr. J. Wesley Boyd, on driving kids out of extracurriculars:
"If schools start implementing this, say, for kids who do extracurricular activities, that might cause a lot of kids not to participate in extracurricular activities, for fear of being drug-tested, or even if they're not using drugs, just because they're offended and upset with the policy. There's very little evidence that random drug testing of this kind is effective at all."

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Romer, on motivating users to switch drugs:
"Most of the tests are particularly good for marijuana, and not much else. Alcohol and other drugs leave the body within a few days. Marijuana doesn't, and it is detectable. ... It all sounds good, but these tests are not particularly sensitive to a lot of drugs, especially if they've been used a week or so ago ... A lot of people will say, this will give students a reason to say no to the offer to use a drug, but what it really is teaching students is to say no to drugs that will be detected. So you get alcohol use and all kinds of other drug use."

Morgan, on when drug testing should begin:
"Middle school, and you need to continue all the way through high school. Research at Columbia University indicated if we get a kid to age 21 before they start smoking or abusing alcohol, or using drugs, they virtually never will. I don't think that's perfect science, but it's the best we have to go on."

Boyd, on the danger of synthetics:
"When parents or schools decide to drug-test kids ... there's a sense that my parents don't trust me. We have a breakdown of our relationship. The same with the relationship with the schools. ... I've seen kids who knew that they were going to be drug-tested at home or elsewhere go to other drugs of abuse that they knew were not going to show up on the test. If you're testing for marijuana, for example, I'm going to start smoking synthetic marijuana instead, which is usually not tested for in any of the common drug kits, or some of the other designer drugs, and these drugs can be remarkably dangerous. I do a lot of work in substance abuse, and one of my patients who was being regularly tested at her high school was smoking synthetic marijuana because it did not show up on the tests. She smoked so much she was actually having seizures and had to get emergency help. But, you know, her tests kept coming back negative."

Romer, on alternative strategies that work:
"There are many other programs that have been tested over the years and they do work. And the effects last, for at least a year. They involve teaching kids the hazards of drug use and helping them with life skills so that they know how to take care of a problem if they feel unhappy or depressed, which sometimes leads to drug use. What to do about that. How to avoid kids who are using drugs, so that you don't have an undue influence. And these programs work, as do positive-climate programs that help schools to engender respect between students and the staff and the teachers. And those programs have wide-ranging effects, not just on drug use but on mental health and bullying — lots of outcomes."

Romer, on spotting kids in trouble:
"If a kid really is having problems with drugs, the faculty and administration should be trained to detect that. If a kid is really having a problem ... those kids would be evident. A kid who's using drugs to excess is going to have problems with coming to school, doing his or her work, and staying responsible. Those kids are going to be pretty evident. You don't need random mandatory drug testing to find those kids and get them help. That's what we should be doing, I think, instead of playing cat-and-mouse with testing programs that we don't know are 100 percent effective."

From the Duluth News Tribune:

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said he's thought about the merits of such a program for some time, long before he was chosen to lead the district.

"It's one more way to give our kids an excuse not to do this," he said of substance abuse. "I want to get out in front before it's a huge problem."

Districtwide, 35 students were either suspended or expelled for illegal drug use in 2010-11, with the number rising to 64 the following year.