Why We Test Students for Drugs

The superintendent in a New Jersey suburb sees a compelling message being sent to her community, along with positive results by Lisa A. Brady

It was a cold, damp night as I swung into the parking lot after an hour-long drive north on the New Jersey Parkway to Middletown. The lot of the large 2,000-plus student high school was jammed, and several local and regional news trucks were stationed in front of the building where people were entering quickly from the mid-February chill.

The scenario was familiar, and I knew exactly what to expect when I was invited to be the keynote speaker for the community forum on random student drug testing. Having worked with more than 50 individual school districts across the country over the past 10 years, I knew what questions I’d face and what concerns would be aired.

In this case, I had been contacted recently by the assistant superintendent of the suburban school district, who explained that the school board had started conversations about a growing concern about student drug and alcohol use in its two high schools. In an effort to quantify the problem, the schools had administered the Rocky Mountain Behavioral Science Institute’s American Drug and Alcohol Survey to students in grades 9-12 and were awaiting the results.

Anxious Feelings
Upon entering the multipurpose room, I was greeted by more than 200 parents and a small group of former students waving “No Drug Testing” placards. There were many expectant faces and an air of anxiousness and uncertainty. This could have been any school, in any town that I have visited over the years in my role as a speaker and advocate of random student drug testing programs for students in our middle and high schools.

As the superintendent of Hunterdon Central Regional High School District in Flemington, N.J., since last July, I have been involved in these efforts since joining the district as a vice principal in 1996. When our high school began randomly drug testing athletes in September 1997, this approach to drug and alcohol prevention was unpopular and, in many places, unheard of. We have learned many lessons in 10 years and have witnessed changes in the climate surrounding this issue that would have been hard to imagine at the time.

We have watched as a small number of schools pioneered these efforts and paved the way for more than 1,000 school districts nationwide that now use student random drug testing as part of their comprehensive efforts to tackle drug and alcohol use by teenagers.

Among the most important lessons learned along the way is that strong, steady leadership from the district superintendent and board of education is a key component to success. Quickly fading are the days when district leadership could turn a blind eye to the myriad of school challenges related to drug and alcohol use by students. This is encouraging and in the best interest of our schools. I’ve seen a remarkable shift in the willingness of school districts to survey their students on their drug and alcohol use and make this data public to their parents and communities. In years past, this practice was considered taboo and many superintendents and school boards feared the information would cast an unfavorable light on their schools.

Today, there is a collective national awareness that an unacceptable number of our teens are involved in the use of dangerous drugs such as methamphetamine, ecstasy and heroin, and they have access to high-grade marijuana. Alcohol use, even more pervasive, results in risky sexual behaviors, automobile accidents and even death. The news media is packed with these stories and messages yet the frightening adolescent activities persist.

And to the dismay of many school administrators and school boards, responsibility has bubbled over from our homes and into our schools.

This is not to negate the views of many superintendents and school boards that resist the idea of shared responsibility in keeping our students drug and alcohol free. Many strongly oppose the notion of schools testing students for illegal substances. Even though the Supreme Court has upheld random drug testing (in 1995) for students involved in athletics and again (in 2002) for students involved in extracurricular activities, they fear legal challenges and pushback from parents, students and liberal advocacy groups.

For those of us who have accepted the calculated risk and provided leadership on this front, I can tell you it has been well worth the effort.

Documented Decline
At Hunterdon Central, we have seen a significant and well-documented decrease in the use of drugs as well as alcohol since implementing our random drug testing program. Our district enrollment has increased from 2,300 students in 1999 to more than 3,100 in 2007, which makes our efforts to discourage teens from using alcohol and other drugs even more difficult. Located in an affluent community, our students have money and access to drugs should they desire to obtain them.

In addition to our regular random drug testing program, we have expanded the policy to include random alcohol testing on site at school dances and proms. As is the case in almost any high school, we recognize that the use of alcohol by teenagers far outweighs the use of drugs. We believe it’s our responsibility to use every means available to discourage students from coming to these school activities under the influence of alcohol.

Students who test positive for alcohol at a school activity are detained and the parents are asked to pick up their child. As with any random testing program, the student is referred for counseling. The student is not suspended from school and there is no interruption of the academic program.

Our Lessons
School districts considering this approach should survey their students prior to program implementation to create a strong statement of need, which can be shared with students, parents and the community. As a pioneering initiative, Hunterdon Central was sued by a small group of disgruntled parents in August 2000 following three years of a successful program. We finally prevailed in 2003 in the New Jersey Supreme Court, which praised our school district for its scrupulous collection of data and ability to justify the need.

Steroid Abuse Moves Into the Scholastic Arena

The use of steroids by athletes at all levels remains in the forefront of the national picture, and that includes secondary schools. The recent admission of steroid use by U.S. Olympic track champion Marion Jones and the continued rumors of steroid use by baseball’s home run champion, Barry Bonds, are only the most-noticed aspects of an ever-frightening story.

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Surveying students also is a critical component in being able to track program effectiveness, which can help to justify the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on drug-fighting efforts. Anecdotal information from students and school counselors is another important piece of the total picture and it should be considered as a district builds its case for a random drug testing program.

Another thing we have learned is that random student drug testing always must be part of a larger, comprehensive approach to drug and alcohol prevention. It cannot be effective as a stand-alone cure-all in the absence of good curriculum, educational prevention programs, parent outreach and substance abuse counseling. Students involved in the use of drugs need strong support and a network of strategies designed to encourage healthy behaviors and a healthy lifestyle. Testing for drugs is only one component.

We also have learned the critical piece that helps to sway parents and students when proposing random student drug testing is that the program takes a nonpunitive approach to the use of drugs and alcohol by our teens. At Hunterdon Central, students who test positive for drugs and/or alcohol under our program are removed temporarily from the sports team or extracurricular activity for no longer than one month. The student and parent meet immediately with our school-based student assistance counselor so an appropriate intervention strategy can be determined. The student must meet with the counselor a minimum of five times during the school year and attend four STOP program modules (an after-school education component) conducted by our school counselors. Students can be assigned to the STOP program for smoking, repetitive discipline infractions, poor decision-making skills and other reasons besides violations of our drug and alcohol policies.

We have learned that communication about our program is our strongest resource and that once parents and community members understand the goals and processes used to conduct the random drug testing program, they are supportive and encouraging. Positive test results must be confirmed by a certified laboratory and a medical review officer who is independent of the school district before any action is taken to remove the student from the sport or activity.

Concerns over false positive drug tests are natural among parents and students so district administrators must be able to allay these fears with solid information about the role of a certified laboratory approved by the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the involvement of the medical review officer (a physician trained in reading drug testing results). After positive test readings are confirmed, parents are contacted directly by the review officer to discuss the results and determine whether any medical reason might explain the positive drug screen. Only after this discussion has taken place are the test results sent confidentially to the school student assistance counselor who arranges a meeting with parents. School administrators are informed on a need-to-know basis only. No written or electronic records of random positive drug tests are kept by the school.

Financial Support
Hunterdon Central currently tests 20 percent of its students in the random drug testing pool each year. This percentage is important because it is large enough to provide the necessary deterrence critical to a successful program. In other words, students must have a reasonable expectation they could be selected for testing. 

With more than 3,100 high school students, we have about 2,500 in our random drug testing pool composed of athletes, students involved in extracurricular activities and students who park and drive on campus.

Altering Minds and Reality Through Drug Testing by James T. Jeffers

Rather than being radical and polarizing, random student drug testing has been embraced by students, parents, teachers and others in our community of Tallassee, Ala., as an effective supplement to what we teach in the classroom.

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We randomly test approximately 500 students annually or 13-15 students in a typical week. Testing is conducted in our school health offices and has been handled by our school nurses as well as an outside collector financed by grant money provided to the district. Until 2004, the random drug testing program was funded entirely by the board of education.

As part of a federal grant program titled School-Based Student Drug Testing Programs and administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the school district has been able to increase the percentage of students being tested from 10 percent to 20 percent since 2004 with the added testing costs covered by the federal funds. The outside collection personnel also are supported by the grant award.

Random student drug testing costs vary in a number of ways depending on the number of students being tested and the type of screening being used (urine, saliva, hair, sweat). Generally, schools need to budget approximately $30 per test to cover the cost of the screening device and confirmation services when needed. Some states, such as New Jersey, have state contracts for urine test cups because these are used by law enforcement, transportation and criminal justice systems as well as schools.

The money we have spent on random student drug testing over the past decade is a small investment when compared to the cost of treatment for even one teenager in a typical 28-day in-patient program. The costs and impact of adolescent drug and alcohol use on our schools are hard to imagine or calculate. Schools can easily spend considerable sums, both directly and indirectly, to address problems that stem from substance abuse — disruptive behavior, poor academic performance, vandalism and other property and personal crimes that affect our schools. Principals are keenly aware that students who are referred for evaluations are often involved with drugs and/or alcohol, especially at the secondary school level.

Palpable Impact
As superintendent, I am convinced that it is critical for the board of education, the central administration and all principals to broadcast a clear, unequivocal message that drug and alcohol use by our students is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. This message has a direct impact on school climate and culture that may be hard to measure but is palpable to all of us who live on the school campus.

The data we have collected over the years clearly show that drug use at Hunterdon Central has declined steadily over the years of our random testing program. For superintendents and school board members interested in looking at the available data, the national student drug testing website (www.studentdrugtesting.org) provides excellent information. In our first three years of testing, drug use went down in 20 of the 28 categories measured by the American Drug and Alcohol survey, most significantly in the multidrug-user category. We have great confidence in this data and the message it sends to our students and community.

Lastly, we have learned that adolescent drug and alcohol use has become part of a national conversation for our schools. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has identified random student drug testing as one of the most effective prevention tools available to our schools, and the office provides significant funding for these programs.

Additional Resources

Lisa Brady suggests the following resource materials on the subject of student drug testing:

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At Hunterdon Central, we welcome and embrace this validation of our efforts and encourage other schools to explore the use of random student drug testing as part of a comprehensive effort to diminish the use of alcohol and other drugs in their schools.

Lisa Brady is superintendent of the Hunterdon Central Regional High School District in Flemington, N.J. E-mail: lbrady@hcrhs.k12.nj.us