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Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Clay Cochran isn’t an NBA star. Nor is he a pilot, a soldier or a crane operator. But Cochran, an 18-year-old football player on the honor roll at Oak Mountain High School in the affluent suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., has something in common with the people in those jobs. He’s subject to random drug tests.

Cochran’s school doesn’t have any reason to believe he takes drugs, but it tests him nonetheless. That’s because Oak Mountain’s district is among the vanguard of schools requiring kids to submit to random drug tests before allowing them to join the chess club, the cheerleading squad or any other extracurricular activity. Cochran, for one, has a problem with the policy. “It makes you feel like you’re guilty,” he says.

If a little-noticed election-year proposal from the Bush administration becomes reality, thousands of other high-school students could soon find themselves in the same boat. Though funding for the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and a host of other domestic programs were cut from this year’s budget, Bush has proposed expanding federal monies for school drug-testing programs more than tenfold, to $23 million. That figure could grow significantly in future years: the president’s Office of National Drug Control Policy says part of the new money would be used to study a nationwide expansion of testing. During his State of the Union, Bush provided his justification, highlighting the drop in youth drug use over the past two years and arguing that “drug testing in our schools has proven to be an effective part of this effort.”

That the relatively small drug-testing initiative went unnoticed in a speech touting tax cuts, expanded Medicare and “weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities” is unsurprising. But so-called suspicion-free drug testing” screening kids for drugs when they’ve done nothing to indicate they have a drug problem” remains highly controversial. In advocating student testing, the White House has cited research showing testing to be an effective deterrent for soldiers, airline pilots, tugboat captains and a host of other professions. They’ve also touted several success stories of pilot schools that have found an answer to their drug problem through testing. Critics say the research is bogus and that the testing is an outrageous violation of student privacy and civil liberties.

Back in Oak Mountain’s district of Shelby County, the administration says its extensive testing program is working, citing a survey of students showing a 10 percent drop in drug use over the past year. Administrators say the testing provides students with an added incentive to “just say no.” They argue that fear of a test helps students to resist pressure to try drugs, allowing kids to say “I can’t or I’ll be kicked off the team.” And though some students and parents are opposed to the program, Shelby County school officials say the critics are misguided. “It’s basically a battle with society,” says John Mobley, the administrator who oversees the testing. “There’s an attitude [among some parents] that ‘I did drugs and they’re not that bad.’ That day is long gone.”

Randomly testing students is a relatively new phenomenon. The legal groundwork wasn’t laid until 1995 when the Supreme Court ruled that schools had a right to randomly test athletes. The court buttressed its decision two years ago, approving of testing for students in the debate club, band or any other nonathletic after-school activity. Today, the president’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, seems to find it difficult to understand why anyone would be opposed to the idea. “I can’t imagine how any organization would support policies that encourage kids to use drugs,” says Andrea Barthwell, the ONDP’s deputy director for demand reduction. “Kids want to know that there is some authority figure who is going to set the rules and enforce them.”

That may be. But a host of critics ranging from teachers’ unions to pediatricians to privacy advocates oppose suspicion-free drug testing. And as the debate moves from the courts to Congress, the opposition has a powerful weapon on its side: evidence that the testing simply doesn’t work. In citing the drop in youth drug use during this year’s State of the Union speech, the White House relied largely on new figures from a large and well-respected federally funded survey of youth drug use at the University of Michigan called Monitoring the Future.

But in proposing an enormous expansion of drug-testing programs, the administration apparently ignored another key finding from the same research group. Published just seven months prior to Bush’s speech in the Journal of School Health, a team of Monitoring the Future researchers surveyed drug stats from 75,000 students in more than 700 schools in an effort to gauge the effectiveness of drug testing. The results? No evidence that schools that engaged in random suspicion-free testing were more effective in deterring drug use than those that didn’t. Rates of drug use at testing and nontesting schools were virtually identical. That led Daryl Johnston, one of the study’s authors, to conclude that the results “raise a serious question of whether drug testing is a wise investment of [schools’] scarce resources.”

Barthwell calls the Journal of School Health study flawed. But when asked whether her office knew of any scientific studies that supported its contention that drug testing students actually works, she responded simply, “No.” That, say critics, is proof that Bush’s new proposal is built not on solid evidence but the shaky ground of political ideology. They argue that though drug testing may deter some adults on the job from getting high, teenagers have a different set of incentives. “The school context is quite different than an airline or the military,” says Graham Boyd, an ACLU lawyer who has contested drug testing lawsuits. “Drug use [among adolescents] is very tied to rebellion against authority.”

Others contend that drug-testing kids may in fact exacerbate the problem it’s meant to solve. That’s because drug testing as practiced at Oak Mountain and nearly all secondary schools is linked to participation in after-school activities: test positive for drugs and you’re off the basketball team. Simple enough, if you’re on the basketball team. But according to Dr. Howard Taras of the American Academy of Pediatrics, research has shown that participating in after-school sports and activities is perhaps the most effective antidote to youth drug use. “We shouldn’t use it to keep kids out of extracurricular activities,” Taras says. “In fact, if a kid tested positive I would encourage schools to get him signed up for as many activities as possible.”

Nonetheless, Oak Mountain High this year pushed forward into what may be a legal gray area by effectively requiring all students who drive to school to submit to its random testing program. All this testing isn’t cheap. Over the past year the school district estimates it’s conducted roughly 2,500-3,000 tests on its 11,000 middle- and high-school students. The cost? $65,000 for a program that netted fewer than 25 positive tests. That’s about $2,600 for each kid caught.

Yet despite the costs and murky evidence about drug testing’s efficacy, critics say the strongest argument against suspicion-free drug testing is that it sends the wrong message to children. President Bush says the goal of drug-testing is not to punish kids but to tell them “We love you, and we don’t want to lose you.” Yet that’s not the message all students and parents hear. Hans York, a father of three and a deputy sheriff in Wahkiakum, Wash., sued his local school after it tried to force his son Aaron to submit to a testing program before joining the drama club. For York, having an official monitor his son for “normal sounds of urination” was not only a violation of his privacy, but sent him the message that he’s guilty until proven innocent. Says York: “As a guy who puts on a gun every day to go to work, I can tell you that a lot of the dialogue stops when you become the police.”

Posted by A. Shapiro
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