A high C and a drug test

Students: A U.S. Supreme Court case on drug testing weighs student privacy issues.

March 31, 2002

AT MOST public schools in this country, landing a role in the school play means nailing the audition.

The glee club? Hitting that high C.

The debate team? Driving home a point.

Now consider another requirement for participation in an after-school club: a drug test.

Sound preposterous? It's not.

Lindsay Earls, an Oklahoma high school student, didn't much care for the idea of urinating in a plastic cup to keep her place in the marching band. She passed the test, but found the process embarrassing and the policy unwarranted.

In 1999, she sued her school district to stop the testing. The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding now whether such tests are legal as a condition of membership in after-school activities.

At issue are a student's constitutional right against unreasonable searches and a school system's responsibility to protect its students from the risk of drug abuse.

There's no debating this point, however: Drug use in this country is a serious public health problem, and teen-agers are its most vulnerable victims.

Their recreational drug use long ago surpassed the occasional toke on a marijuana cigarette. Heartbreaking tales of heroin-addicted and cocaine-snorting teens abound.

No longer are these kids confined to the rowhouses and apartments of urban America. They live on the grassy cul de sacs of America's suburbs and on the Main Streets of its small towns.

And while national studies show a five-year decline in overall drug use by teens, if you are the parent of an honor student or soccer forward caught in the seductive grip of drugs, that's the only statistic that counts.

But do random drug tests really deter today's teens from getting high on the weekend? And is that the best way to persuade kids not to use drugs?

Random drug tests in schools have been legal in a limited way since 1995, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of school officials in Vernonia, Ore., to randomly test their athletes for drugs. The Oregon district adopted the policy to combat widespread drug use in its schools. Surprisingly, its athletes had been the source of the problem. In the face of a demonstrated need, the court approved the drug testing of athletes.

But the Oklahoma case now before the court would greatly expand the pool of students who could be tested and weaken the criteria for instituting a policy. It's doubtful that a blanket drug-testing program would be legal. Subjecting students who participate in extra-curricular activities to random tests cleverly skirts the constitutional problem of testing everyone while reaching a majority of students.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing former student Lindsay Earls in the Oklahoma case, has argued that officials failed to show that a drug problem existed at Tecumseh High School. And unlike athletics, where drug use could result in physical injury, they said a similar risk doesn't exist when the Future Homemakers of America meet.

There's another important concern here. If most students have to submit to surprise drug tests, the only sensible and caring way to proceed is to involve school counselors and parents in an outcome that focuses on helping students, not punishing them.

That's how it worked at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J. Students who tested positive remained in school, but they could not participate in an after-school club or sport until they passed a new test.

Before its drug-testing program was challenged in court last year, Hunterdon was testing about 200 kids a year. A survey of Hunterdon's students two years after the random tests began found that reported drug use declined nearly across the board.

The Supreme Court is going to make its decision in the Oklahoma case based on the legal arguments before it. But school systems should not be able to require mandatory drug tests of its chess club members and basketball players without demonstrating that a problem exists. To do otherwise opens up the danger that such tests would be used indiscriminately - and worse, punitively.

Young people must be encouraged to develop their interests and contribute to their communities, to confide in their teachers and counselors when they have problems.

Random testing shouldn't be the means by which a school district shows it means business. It should be the last piece of an integrated program that relies on counseling and education.

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