Drug testing in schools: Is it the right move?

The debate resurfaces after a Kansas City school tests students' hair for drugs

The other day just for kicks, I watched the movie “Traffic” again with Michael Douglass and Benicio del Toro that was made back in 2000.

I’d seen the movie in theaters when it was first released and for some reason it’s been on my mind for the past few weeks to the point where I just had to stream it -- because whether it’s a song or a movie that’s stuck in my head, the only way to get it out is to play it, reabsorb it, then move on.

For those who haven’t seen the movie or need to be re-familiarized with it, "Traffic" shows different aspects of the drug epidemic in the United States and tells separate stories from the perspective of Douglass’ character, a newly appointed drug czar, del Toro’s character, a cop working in Mexico and the wife of a drug kingpin played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.

A crucial part of the movie and one that probably hit close to home for many viewers is how the drug problem affects families, namely children and how even in the case of Michael Douglass’s character, who was in charge of America’s war on drugs, he had no idea that his own daughter was a heavy cocaine user and pretty much led a double life.

The movie really made me think of kids, the drug problem and how parents are coping these days when a new drug seems to be released every other month. And with popular music, movies and television shows at times displaying a casual attitude towards drug use, it’s very easy for kids to develop that same casual attitude too.

Drug testing

And for that reason, many school districts around the U.S. have implemented drug testing policies to sniff out usage among the students, and some cases these drug tests are mandatory if students wish to participate in clubs, sports teams or other extracurricular activities.

Take, for example, Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo., that just introduced a new drug testing policy which consists of cutting 60 strands of hair from each student to determine if they’ve been taken certain substances within 90 days of the test.

Testing for drugs by using hair strands is known to be more accurate and makes it harder for people to cheat and manipulate the results.

Of course Rockhurst’s new drug testing method caused quite the stir in the Kansas City area, as some parents are in favor of the school taking such measures and others believe Rockhurst is going just a little too far.

But is that true?

According to the government website DrugAbuse.gov, 6.5 percent of 8th graders smoke marijuana, 17 percent of 10th graders and 22.9 percent of 12th graders smoked pot in 2012.

When it comes to cocaine usage, 6.2 percent of 8th graders and 4 percent of 10th graders use the drug, and although these percentages have come down since 2011, the numbers are still pretty substantial.

Still a big problem

The drug abuse website also shows that prescription drugs, ecstasy, alcohol and tobacco use are still big problems among America’s younger generation and school officials like Stuart Gulley, president of Woodward Academy,  the largest private elementary and high school in the United States, says that by testing 40 percent of his student body, he’s able to keep students on their toes on whether they’ll be tested or not.

This approach he believes will dramatically cut down drug use in his school, which has students from K through 12.

“We anticipate that approximately 12 students every other week will be tested for approximately 40 percent of our high school population,” said Gulley in an interview with a local news outlet.

“We feel like with a 40 percent range it’s manageable for us from a logistic standpoint and it also sends the message to students that the likelihood is great that there name may be drawn in a given year.”

In the case of Rockhurst high school, officials believe that by using hair samples as opposed to using urine samples, they’ll be able to better find out if a student is using drugs and provide the necessary help if its needed.

“Our point is, if we do encounter a student who has made some bad decisions, we will be able to intervene, get the parents involved, get him help if necessary, and then help him get back on a path of better decision making, healthier choices for his life,” said Rockhurst Principal Greg Harkness in a published interview.

And just like Douglass’s daughter in the movie "Traffic," Harkness says that most parents are in the dark about everything their kids are doing, especially when it comes to drug use and experimentation.

“Adolescents by their very nature are also spinning off to be very independent, so there are things that they do behind their parents' back,  simply because they are beginning that process of individuation and moving on,” he said. “I have never had an experience as a counselor where parents were completely aware of everything that was going on and perhaps it should be that way. Part of an adolescent’s life is to be resourceful.”

Some would say Harkness’s logic is spot on, and that many kids have their parents completely fooled about everything they do in those hours away from home.

Dream on, parents

In my own teenage experience I remember overhearing conversations parents had with each other at school events or when my parents would pick me up after practice. Some of the parents would go on and on to my mom about how happy they were that their kids stayed away from risky behaviors, which made me always think about how in the dark these parents were about what their children were really into.

Doug Bonney, the legal director for the ACLU of Kansas City, says he disagrees with Harkness and said that nothing, not even the most technologically advanced drug test, will keep drugs away from a child if he or she really wants to use them.

“Nothing prohibits it,” he said referring to some kids and their desire to use drugs. “But it is a colossal waste of money.”

We reached out to both the Washington D.C. and the Kansas City branch of the ACLU for further comment, but neither responded.

In a 2008 survey, it was determined that 14 percent of 1,337 school districts used random drug testing, 93.4 percent of districts used it for athletes and 65 percent used drug testing for students who are involved in extracurricular activities.

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.
Consumer Affairs

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