by Susan Stopper
Students in Pennsylvania’s Rose Tree Media School District think twice about drinking alcohol before their high school prom. Prior to entering the dance, every student must undergo a breathalyzer test for alcohol. Students who test positive are retested. If the second test is positive, their parents and the police are called.
Breathalyzers are one of the tools schools across the country are using to reduce student drug and alcohol use.
Schools have added alcohol- and drug-free events after dances, sporting events and graduations. Many host clubs such as SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and student assistance programs that offer treatment and counseling.
Despite these measures, student drug and alcohol use has remained fairly stable nationally. According to one report, the 2008 Monitoring the Future survey, which collects data on student drug use, nearly 50 percent of 12th graders have used illicit drugs at least once.
A Step Further
A few schools have implemented or are considering even stronger measures than the breathalyzer. “As a school district, we feel it is our responsibility to help protect kids and help them made good decisions,” says Robert Laws, PhD, superintendent of Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania.
Central Bucks is considering random drug testing for any student who takes part in an extracurricular activity or drives to school. The students would have to consent, with parental permission, to be tested at random for drugs or lose these privileges. If a student tests positive he or she would not be able to participate in activities until testing negative.
The model for the Central Bucks idea is Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ. The school began voluntary random drug testing in 1996. “Education is not enough,” says principal Christine Steffner. “Kids need another reason to say no. This gives them an excuse. If you’re a soccer player or a cheerleader and you’re at a party, you can say you can’t use because you might be drug tested.”
Not everyone agrees that drug and alcohol testing are fair or effective deterrents. The Central Bucks School District is conducting focus groups with parents, students, faculty, police and other community members to find out how they feel about instituting voluntary random drug testing. Dr. Laws says that about 80 percent of participants support the idea, but about 20 percent worry it is an infringement on students’ rights.
Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), say that voluntary random drug testing has not been shown to be an effective deterrent and may result in false positives. It could also drive students away from extracurricular activities, which help occupy their time and keep them away from drugs and alcohol.
Despite criticism, Steffner says, “Random drug testing is one of the most effective deterrents I’ve ever seen.” Her school conducted a survey of drug use among students before starting voluntary random testing in 1996, and by 1999, after three years of using the program, usage had gone down in 20 out of 28 categories, according to Steffner.
Parents and the ACLU sued the school, and the program was suspended during the litigation from 1999 to 2002. The school continued to provide their other drug and alcohol prevention programs but found that 18 of the 20 categories that had previously gone down went back up while random drug testing was suspended. In 2002 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the school’s favor and random drug testing was reinstated.
Similar criticism has been made of breathalyzer use to test for alcohol. Linda Bluebello, EdD, director of pupil services at the Rose Tree Media district, says, “At first students were not happy about it, but they’ve gotten used to it.” And the breathalyzer does appear to be a deterrent, with very few students testing positive during the five years of its use.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled twice in recent years that voluntary random drug testing is legal, but litigation still occurs. Programs must be instituted correctly and used appropriately.
Steffner explains that school districts must not only demonstrate a need to use voluntary random drug testing, they must also ensure that the results are confidential (only shared with the student and his or her parents) and must not involve any loss of academic time through punishments such as suspension from school.
To be successful, experts agree that voluntary random drug testing and breathalyzers need to be part of a multi-faceted approach to the problems of drug and alcohol use. Education about substance abuse dangers must remain the cornerstone. Having resources available for kids who find themselves with a problem is important as well, but proponents of testing say it can help prevent kids from getting to that point.
“We lose kids every single year. Once kids get into heavy use it is hard to get them out,” says Steffner. “This program helps deal with kids just thinking about it or who are just starting to experiment.”
Susan Stopper is a local freelance writer.