Many schools are still testing students for drug use, despite the end of federal funding and mixed evidence on whether it's worth the expense. Some are expanding their testing.
Hayes Johnson has six children. At home in Vestavia Hills, near Birmingham, Alabama, on a recent morning, she and two of her kids, 6-year-old Joseph and 16-year-old Celeste, were busy cleaning up the breakfast remains — syrup and marshmallow fluff and bacon.
From left: Hayes, Joseph and Celeste Johnson.
When she started high school, Celeste wanted to do theater. She wanted to play lacrosse and join the French club. So at the beginning of her freshman year, she and her parents had a little talk about drug tests.
"And we discussed it with her and said, ‘This is something that could happen,’ " her mother says.
That’s because Vestavia Hills High School, where Celeste will be a junior this year, has been testing students in extracurricular activities for about 10 years. For Celeste, and for many students across the country — athletes, and kids in everything from chess club to debate team — school drug testing is just part of the deal. Almost 30 percent of public schools drug test their students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"But our latest addition is our voluntary drug testing program," says David Howard, who oversees drug testing at Vestavia Hills City Schools. The new program opens up drug testing to any student. "Basically if you’re going to sign up for it, we’re going to drug test you."
If a child tests positive, parents are told, and they have to show a board of review what they’ve done to help their child. Kids who come up clean get a certificate. Other school systems offer incentives like discounts on ice cream and free bowling.
Howard thinks these programs are important. He says a few of their graduates have died of heroin overdoses in recent years. And, he says, the downward spiral leading to that starts in high school.
"Mainly, we made that offering to their parents because we just want to equip them with the info that maybe something is going on," he says.
To sign up, parents pay $40 a year. The random testing program for kids in extracurricular activities costs the school system about $1,500 a month. That’s a big financial hit. And the costs can go up if more kids sign up for activities.
"If numbers go up, we just have to tackle it on multiple days with maybe more testers," Howard says.
Drug testing is a multibillion dollar industry. But in schools, it’s not clear the expense—and the interrupted class time—are worth it, according to Linn Goldberg, a professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University who has studied school drug testing.
"If it’s used primarily as a deterrent, there’s not a lot of real good evidence that it works that way," he says.
Research shows that while drug testing is associated with a very modest decline in marijuana use, surveys sometimes find an increase in the use of other drugs. How? For one thing, drug tests aren’t always accurate. Case in point, Goldberg says, the athletes Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong.
"And there are times that they don’t test," he says. "They don’t test in the summer. They don’t test over vacations. They don’t test on the weekends."
And kids know this. Celeste Johnson, the high school junior, says, "I think that if a kid really wants to be using drugs, they’re going to find some way to evade it."
The Johnsons haven’t opted in to the new drug testing program. Because they do extracurriculars, they’re already subject to random testing. But Hayes Johnson questions the randomness. In five years, her kids haven’t been tested once.
"But we have friends who have children who do the exact same extracurriculars who’ve tested every year, multiple times a year," she says.
Not to mention, she says, a friend’s son who tested positive for amphetamines. It turned out it was his ADHD medicine.
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