Random Madness

When Chris Steffner, principal of Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey, was asked at a March 19th meeting at Manasquan High School if the intiative she supports to implement random drug testing in schools across America included the random drug testing of everyone in the school building, she fell back to the Major League Baseball defense of its actions, or inactions, concerning drug use and testing prior to 2005.

"The NJEA [teachers union] will never agree to it."

Ms. Steffner skillfully makes a case for random student drug testing in public schools, but just as ineptly ignores the social context of failed drug policies. In the presentation at Manasquan High School, Ms. Steffner referred to her 30 plus years of experience in education. She stated that through that entire time there have been drug problems in public and private education in the United States. She went on to say that once one travels down the path of drug abuse there is little chance of self-initiated recovery.

I don't know of any sources that dispute the presence of a drug problem in schools in the US over the past 30 years (and longer), but the notion that anyone touched by the drug-culture and thereby inoculated against self-control in using those drugs is far less established.

Drug treatment facilities based in New York State and in Connecticut claim that the path from drugs is difficult, if not impossible, to follow by oneself.

"You have probably heard this:" I will do it by myself" "I am not addicted". Unfortunately, if detoxification would be an easy step. Drug and alcohol would not be one of the biggest problem in our society. When a person addicted makes an attempt at detoxification and to stop drug use without the help of a professional , the results do not last long. Scientific research into the long term effects drugs and alcohol addiction has proven that changes in the way the brain functions are staying long after the addict has stopped consuming drugs. Realizing that an addicted person who wishes to recover from their drug problem needs more than just strong will power is the key to a successful recovery. Fighting not only cravings for their drug they are using, environment triggers, etc.It is no wonder that quitting drugs without professional help is a really hard battle." --connecticut-drug-rehab.com

If, however, we assume that the arguments about inevitable long term drug abuse for anyone using drugs at any time in their life are true, then the problem of drug use by students in our schools become the systemic problem of drug abuse for anyone in society. There is no exemption for status or position. Any member of a board of education, administration, cafeteria, teaching or custodial staff may have the same types of problems as the students.

The obvious difference between the professional staff of a school and the student body in a K -12 school environment is the age of the two groups. Professional staff are presumed to be adults who are able to make adult choices in life; the students are, often, teenagers who can make puzzling and/or poor choices about almost anything of which a parent can think. If the drug problem is indeed entrenched and systemic, every member of the educational institution must participate in any site-wide initiative. Choosing to randomly test students, alone, leaves a leadership vacuum that excludes the professional staff and may lead to resentment of the entire program. The students may believe that while their alleged drug use is under daily scrutiny, any drug use by school staff is not considered at all. One way to overcome objections by professional staff organizations to organized testing is to make the testing completely voluntary. Participants in the program could be publicly thanked for their commitment and leadership efforts and the results of their random tests would remain as private as any student's test regardless of the result. But even that vision of universal testing falls short of the goal of random drug testing.

While it is true that the student random drug testing programs are very careful about avoiding extensive punitive measures for students who test positive, there are consequences in their family relationships. There are few statistical comparisons between the subjective nature of a strong family relationship and the objective nature of testing and empirical evidence.

According to a White House drug policy study, social leadership, and strong family relationships --not drug testing-- have changed the drug abuse landscape:

"Compared to a generation ago, most of today's teens are thriving. Drug, alcohol, tobacco, and teen pregnancy rates are all down. But recent surveys show that among the Nation's 12-17-year-olds, each day 3,430 try marijuana for the first time; 7,500 try alcohol;3,900 try cigarettes; and one in five teenage girls has at least one birth by age 20. In a typical high school class in America today, the number of students engaging
in risky behaviors is staggering: seven out of 30 kids are using drugs; 13 drink alcohol; six smoke cigarettes; and 10 are sexually active. Indeed, new data also shows that more than four in 10 adolescents have been offered drugs and about one in four have been offered drugs at school." -- whitehousedrugpolicy.gov

Even regional groups have objections to the nature and efficacy of proposed student random drug testing. At a January, 2008 meeting of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey and the Northern Valley Regional School District, these objections were recorded:

"In addition to presenting to around 100 parents and students in Northern Valley and providing them with materials such as the booklet
Making Sense of Student Drug Testing: Why Educators Are Saying No,
and the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement opposing student drug testing, DPA New Jersey collected student testimonials from Christopher Lauth and Allegra Stout against drug testing and sent these letters to the Superintendent of Northern Valley and the Substance Abuse Task Force members. DPA New Jersey also sought and received support from a New Jersey pediatrician who wrote a letter to the school district urging them to oppose drug testing." - www.lindesmith.com

Ms Steffner's presentation at Manasquan High School further indicated that alcohol was not one of the substances that the random drug tests were designed to detect. These tests make no attempt to record or predict the use and abuse of alcohol in the school and in the workplace and, indeed, such data gathering and manipulation is beyond the scope of the tests. A recent (March 10, 2008) report by ScienceDaily describes parental supervision as the leading factor in preventing High School age drinking from becoming a problem in college. Regarding the effects of random testing, the Journal of the Society for Adolescent Medicine published in November, 2007 the SATURN (Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification) study which inconclusively concluded:

"The researchers conclude that because some predictors of drug and alcohol use increased and past one-month use did not change with random testing, more research should be done to examine the policy of drug and alcohol testing." -- Medical News Today

An international survey of 420 teenagers found that while 15 percent used drugs, 60 percent used or had used alcohol and 20 percent had a problem with alcohol.

Testing teenagers for drugs --randomly or on a schedule: voluntarily or compulsory-- can't solve the problem of drug and/or alcohol use in schools. While in some instances it may give us firmer statistical numbers on how large the problem may be, few people believe the problem is small. The studies that have been done that show promise of avoiding potentially destructive behaviors all seem to focus on powerful leadership from role models and in the family unit. And is that such a big surprise? Should we be shocked that teenagers left guided by their own adolescent radar get into trouble with drugs or alcohol?

Of course not.

Neither should we ever be so short-sighted and shallow to believe that testing a student to discourage a behavior will have any long term change in that behavior. We will only create a more forbidden fruit to pluck.


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