Drug testing has become a relatively popular means of addressing student drug use. Before it was introduced in the school environment, such testing was used in the military, in the workplace, and in college and Olympic competitions to see if athletes were using prohibited substances. At the college level, drug testing is generally reserved for persons involved in athletics and is conducted by the National College Athletic Association (NCAA). Proponents of this practice maintain that drug testing is a deterrent to drug use, that it is used to identify those in need of help, and that it ensures a safe and fair educational climate and/or athletic field. Critics assert that research does not support the purported deterrent effect. Further, such tests are vulnerable to cheating, not very reliable in their results, cost too much, and are invasive of students’ privacy rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled on the constitutionality of school-based drug testing in 1995 in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton. In that case, the justices held that drug testing of student athletes was constitutional. The Court considered this practice a useful means to address student drug use and did not find it to be overly intrusive. This decision was an outgrowth of the “special need” standard for schools developed in the Court’s ruling in TLO v. New Jersey in 1985, which stated that schools must balance students’ rights with their special need to protect the educational climate.
In 2002, the Supreme Court decided the case of Board of Education v. Earls. In Earls, the Court held that drug testing of public school students engaged in all extracurricular activities was constitutional. Hence the Earls decision represented a significant expansion of the rights afforded school districts in regard to drug testing students. Prior to the Earls case, approximately 7% of public school districts employed drug testing (5% for student athletes, with an additional 2% for students engaged in extracurricular activities). Estimates are that 18% to 20% of school districts employed some type of drug testing in 2010, a dramatic increase. Notably, the George W. Bush administration advocated greater use of drug testing, even arguing that schools should randomly test their entire student body. Some schools have enacted such programs, so it is likely the courts will again hear a case on student drug testing.
Drug testing is not an inexpensive proposition. The cost of an individual test ranges between $25 and $60. These tests are not necessarily robust, and they are not always able to detect use when it has occurred. Conversely, they might detect use when it has not occurred (a false positive).
The largest national study of the impact of school-based drug testing, which involved 76,000 students across the United States, found that drug use was just as prevalent in schools with testing as in those without such a policy. Another study found that athletes in schools with testing actually held more positive attitudes toward drug use than those in comparable schools without testing.
Cheating on drug tests is quite easy. Students can take substances to mask their use, substitute someone else’s urine, or tamper with the tests. It is easy to purchase products designed to cheat drug tests, as many are available at local nutrition stores or online.
Although the courts have not found drug testing to be a violation of students’ Fourth Amendment rights, critics maintain that they are indeed intrusive. Students may be embarrassed in the process of procuring a urine sample and in some cases have even been asked to urinate in front of monitors to ensure they are not cheating.
The NCAA uses more robust tests for student athletes. This organization randomly draws the names of student athletes to be tested. It also ensures that test results are sent to accredited labs and analyzed by experts, helping reduce the room for error.
- Beger, R. (2003). The “worst of both worlds”: School security and the disappearing Fourth Amendment rights of students. Criminal Justice Review, 28, 336-354.
- Finley, L., & Finley, P. (2003). Piss off! How drug testing and other privacy violations are alienating America’s youth. Monroe, ME: Common Courage.
- Goldberg,L.etal.(2003).Drugtestingathletes to prevent substance abuse: Background and pilot study results of the SATURN (Student Athletes Testing Using Random Notification) study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 32, 16-25.
- Hughes, T. (2005). Public student drug testing and the special needs doctrine in Board ofEducation v. Earls: “Just getting tougher.” Criminal Justice Policy Review, 16(3), 3-17.