Drug testing students doesn’t work
As reported by The Associated Press, the West Las Vegas School District recently said that the district is considering drug testing its staff, students and student athletes. School board member Ambrosio Castellano, who introduced the idea, said, “In light of the recent events of what’s happened at schools, I think that anybody, or any teacher, any administrator who may be using a prescription medication or may be using narcotics, poses a safety threat to the school.”
While West Las Vegas schools have a clear and compelling interest in preventing adult and adolescent problematic drug use and educating our youth about the honest facts of drug use, drug testing students and staff may lead to more risky behaviors and disrupt the delicate balance of trust and honesty that the fine educators there have worked so hard to establish with their students.
A broad body of research indicates that drug testing is ineffective, counterproductive, personally invasive and, for many adolescents, dangerous.
Students inclined toward drug experimentation may switch to drugs that are less likely to be detected but are as or more dangerous such as alcohol or inhalants. Alcohol and inhalants often are not screened for in most drug tests but may pose even greater health risks than the drugs the tests were designed to detect. For this reason, the leading U.S. experts in adolescent health — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry — have increasingly opposed calls for such testing programs.
Student drug testing also disrupts the delicate balance of trust and honesty that educators try to establish with their students.
Rather than being seen as advisers and counselors, school officials are cast as drug enforcers. A national survey published in 2009 in the Journal of School Health found that 45 percent of U.S. school districts surveyed responded punitively to a positive test result — even to a student’s first positive test.
Rather than attempting rehabilitation, many school districts have simply reported the student to law enforcement, or subjected the pupil to disciplinary actions, including suspension or expulsion. Such punitive practices are unethical and illustrate the impropriety of drug testing in the school setting.
There are alternatives that the West Las Vegas School District can adopt instead of resorting to drug testing. One of those alternatives is the Safety First educational program produced by the Drug Policy Alliance. Safety First is an innovative drug education curriculum that serves as a tool for teachers, counselors, prevention specialists and parents to initiate an open, honest discussion with young people about drugs and drug use.
The West Las Vegas School District’s students, parents and educators must insist that the district implement evidence-based policies that combine effective prevention measures, including honest education about the relative harms of various drugs and extracurricular activities, and rehabilitation for students who suffer from drug dependency problems.
One can understand the motivation to reduce substance misuse by our New Mexico teens; however, in practice, drug testing in schools makes children and schools less safe, not more.
Emily Kaltenbach is the state director of the group, Drug Policy Alliance.