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Student Drug Testing Frequently Asked Questions

Source: White House Office of Drug Control Policy

Q: Why drug test students?
A: In addition to creating a culture of disapproval toward drugs in the communities where it is employed, student drug testing also achieves three public health goals: 1) it deters children from initiating drug use; 2) it identifies children who have just started using drugs so that parents and counselors can intervene early; and 3) it helps identify children who have a dependency on drugs so that they can be referred to effective drug treatment.

Addiction is a pediatric-onset disease that needs a strong public health response. Research shows that the earlier a child starts using drugs, the more likely he or she will be to develop a substance abuse problem. Conversely, if a child does not start using drugs in the teen years, he or she is much less likely to initiate or develop a substance abuse problem later in life, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The most recent SAMHSA data (2002) show that 1.4 million American teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 are in need of drug treatment.

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Q: What are the benefits of drug testing?
A: Drug use can turn to dependence and addiction, trapping users in a vicious cycle that destroys families and ruins lives. Drug testing has been shown to be an effective tool in preventing student drug use. The expectation that they may be randomly tested is enough to make some students stop using drugs—or never start in the first place. Drug testing is also an excellent tool for identifying drug-dependent students so they can be referred to treatment and get the help they need.

Students who use drugs are statistically more likely than nonusers to drop out of school, bring guns and knives to school, and be involved in physical attacks, property destruction, stealing, and cutting classes (SAMHSA, 2004). Drug abuse not only interferes with a student's ability to learn, it also disrupts the orderly environment necessary for all students to succeed. Obviously, reducing the likelihood of these disruptive behaviors benefits everyone involved in the educational institution.

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Q: Are student drug testing programs effective at deterring use?
A: Yes, random student drug testing is effective at deterring drug use. Most students don't use drugs, but they are constantly subject to peer pressure and are bombarded with messages from movies, music, television, and the Internet that drug use is okay and even a rite of passage for teens. To the relief of teens, drug testing removes the tug of peer pressure. It provides a way to shift the burden of deciding not to use drugs from themselves to the adults in their lives.

After two years of a drug-testing program, Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey saw significant reductions in 20 of 28 drug use categories; e.g., cocaine use by seniors dropped from 13 percent to 4 percent. And a study from Ball State University showed that 73 percent of high school principals reported a reduction in drug use among students subject to the drug testing policy, as against 2 percent who reported an increase.

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Q: Has drug testing worked in other sectors of society?
A: Many of our Nation's businesses and institutions have implemented successful drug testing programs, including the Federal government. Since the U.S. Military began drug testing in the early 1980s, drug use among servicemen and servicewomen has plunged from 28 percent to around 3 percent. When the Department of Transportation (DOT) implemented a mandatory drug-free workplace initiative in the interest of public safety, drug use in the transportation industry also declined. The DOT model has been implemented in many non-regulated industries as well, each of which also saw a decrease in drug use. Because of this, many Fortune 500 companies employ drug testing programs because they know it makes their workplaces safer and more productive.

Every American who steps on an airplane or sends kids out to the school bus in the morning rests easier knowing that pilots and bus drivers are drug tested. Drug testing saves lives. We can no longer withhold the proven benefits of drug testing from the members of society who are most vulnerable to drugs' destructive influence.

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Q: Is the Federal government mandating student drug testing?
A: No. The administration recognizes drug testing as one tool that local schools can use as part of a broad drug-prevention effort. Each school or school district should involve the entire community in determining whether student drug testing is right for their specific situation.

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Q: How can schools determine if there is a need for a drug testing program?
A: As communities examine their drug problems, it is not enough to have a general sense that student drug testing sounds like a good idea. Schools must first determine whether there is a real need for testing. Such a need can be determined from student drug-use surveys, reports by teachers and other school staff about student drug use, reports about drug use from parents and others in the community, and from discoveries of drug paraphernalia or drug residue at school.

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Q: Is student drug testing a stand-alone solution, or do schools need to initiate additional programs to prevent and reduce drug use?
A: Drug testing should never be undertaken as a stand-alone response to the drug problem. Rather, it should be one component of a broader program, including treatment and prevention, designed to reduce students' use of illegal drugs.

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Q: If a student tests positive for drugs, should that student face disciplinary consequences?
A: The primary purpose of drug testing is not to punish students who use drugs but to prevent initiation, to stop non-dependent use from spreading, and to help drug-dependent students become drug-free. The results of a positive drug test should be used to intervene with not-yet-dependent students through counseling and follow-up testing. Parents and administrators can refer students who are diagnosed as drug-dependent to effective drug-treatment programs so they can begin the process of recovery.

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Q: When a child tests positive, are schools responsible for paying for drug treatment?
A: No. The drug test can be looked on in much the same way that vision screening or tests for scoliosis are handled in a school. However, well-crafted drug-testing programs will incorporate qualified health and drug treatment professionals to aid in assessing students who test positive. Some parents may be unaware of their child's use, or they may simply not know what to do to help. It is important that schools have reference guides and referrals available to educate parents on the problem and help them choose how to intervene or get their child the professional treatment they need.

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Q: Is drug testing a violation of a child's privacy rights?
A: This objection usually stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of student drug testing. First, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that drug testing must be done confidentially. Schools have a responsibility to respect students' privacy, so it is vital that only the people who need to know the test results see them—parents and school administrators, for example. The results should not be shared with anyone else, not even teachers. The purpose is not to expose and punish children for drug use, but to deter use, intervene early with those who have just begun to use, and to provide professional help to those who have become dependent.

The appropriate comparison is to screening for other diseases. Most parents and students are not concerned about privacy rights when schools require tuberculosis tests in order to prevent a dangerous disease from being spread within the student population. When concerned citizens realize drug dependence is a disease of the brain that spreads through non-addictive users, their privacy objections usually dissipate.

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Q: Just because the U.S. Supreme Court said student drug testing for children in competitive extracurricular activities is constitutional, does that mean it is legal in my city or state?
A: When a school or school district is interested in adopting a student drug-testing program, it should seek legal expertise to make sure it complies with all federal, state, and local laws. Individual state constitutions may dictate different legal thresholds for allowing student drug testing. Communities interested in starting student drug-testing programs should become familiar with the law in their respective states to ensure proper compliance.

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Q: What does the American public think about student drug testing?
A: A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll from June 21–23, 2002, showed that 70 percent of Americans said school districts should be allowed to test public school students for illegal drugs before those students can participate in non-athletic activities.

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Q: Involvement in extracurricular programs is touted as a good way to keep kids from using drugs. Won't drug-testing drive students out of these beneficial extracurricular programs, or deter them from joining in the first place?
A: A well-implemented testing program is in place to assist students, not to punish them. A positive test is an opportunity to counsel the student or get them into drug treatment, if deemed necessary. Students who test positive should be allowed to participate in their extracurricular programs when they demonstrate that they are taking positive steps to remain drug-free.

Schools should not be expected to become enablers of a student's drug use. To allow a potentially drug-using student to join activities that the student finds desirable (sports, chorus, band, drama, driving to school, etc.) with no penalty is to disserve that student and to enable his or her entry into drug use. A more positive message is to confront students with a choice between activities they love or entering the lifestyle of a drug user.

Moreover, this is a choice that students will face in the next phase of their lives. When they seek to enter the workforce or the military, they will likely have to confront the same choice between using drugs or achieving their goal. It is better that they face that choice while still in school.

Finally, if students are at risk for drug use and turn away from sports or other activities that their friends are entering, they will likely encounter peer pressure from their friends to give up the drug lifestyle and join them in the activity. The presence of a testing program gives them a positive incentive to stay clean, and it protects the other, non-using students, by not allowing in their midst an active drug user.

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Q: What testing methods are available?
A: There are several testing methods available including urine, hair, oral fluids, and sweat (patch). These methods vary in cost, reliability, drugs detected, and detection period. Schools should determine their needs and choose the method that best suits their requirements.

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Q: Which drugs are tested for?
A: The various testing methods normally test for a "panel" of drugs. Typically, drug tests examine the sample for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and PCP. If a school has a particular problem with club drugs such as MDMA or GHB, it may wish to expand testing for these drugs.

Most schools test for marijuana, the most widely abused illicit drug in America. Of the more than 19 million current illicit drug users, nearly 15 million are using marijuana. Of all youth age 12–17 in drug treatment in 2000, nearly 62 percent had a primary marijuana diagnosis.

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Q: What about alcohol?
A: Research and experience have shown that when usage rates for drugs decrease, so do usage rates for alcohol and cigarettes. Alcohol is a serious problem among young people, and schools may want to test students for its use. However, alcohol does not remain in the blood long enough for most tests to detect recent use. Breathalyzers and oral-fluid tests can detect current use and can be used to measure impairment. But the argument that you can't test for weekend alcohol use should have no impact on whether or not a school tests for drugs. If there is an effective way to reduce the use of a range of harmful substances, how does the inability to effectively test for one harmful substance negate the benefit of reducing use of the others? In addition, children with substance abuse problems are often polydrug users, so identifying a problem with drugs may also uncover a problem with alcohol. Again, it is up to individual communities to weigh the options and decide the best way to tackle all types of youth substance abuse.

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Q: Can students "beat" the tests?
A: Many drug-using students are aware of techniques that supposedly detoxify their systems or mask their drug use. Popular magazines and Internet sites give advice on how to dilute urine samples, and there are even companies that sell clean urine or products designed to distort test results. A number of techniques and products are focused on urine tests for marijuana, but masking products increasingly are becoming available for tests of hair, oral fluids, and multiple drugs.

Most of these masking products do not work, cost a lot of money, and are almost always easily identified in the testing process. But even if the specific drug is successfully masked, the product itself can be detected, in which case the student using it would become an obvious candidate for additional screening and attention.

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