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Expert sees progress in school-based testing

December 1, 2007
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Oak Park, Illinois, attorney William Judge has worked closely with Bush administration officials over the past several years to spread the word about how local school districts can implement effective and legally defensible drug testing programs. While controversy over the random testing of students has by no means gone away, Judge says he senses a growing acceptance of testing as one tool in communities’ effort to curb youth substance use.

“This almost has a life of its own now,” says Judge, a nationally prominent expert on drug testing trends and technologies. “The situation with testing in schools parallels where we were with workplace testing 20 years ago,” when President Ronald Reagan used the force of an executive order to articulate the goal of a drug-free federal workplace.

In the case of student testing, U.S. Supreme Court rulings that upheld some local districts’ policies requiring participants in sports and other extracurricular activities to submit to random drug testing have paved the way for the federal government's active promotion of student testing as a substance use reduction strategy. Judge estimates that he has participated in about 20 White House-sponsored community forums across the country to discuss issues around student testing. He marvels at the consistency of the problems surrounding student use of substances across school districts.

“Everyone has exactly the same issues,” Judge says. “One of the key factors in schools is treatment; that is a key need.” Whereas many workplaces will seek to eradicate an identified drug problem by dismissing a worker, school districts have an obligation to educate their young charges, Judge says.

Judge says his Internet searches of articles and information about student drug testing used to uncover accounts of school districts being challenged by civil libertarians and others for implementing testing policies. Now the focus of news reports is shifting to the mechanics of implementation, as state and federal courts generally have upheld the constitutionality of random testing programs targeting participants in extracurricular activities, he says.

School data

Recent analyses have portrayed middle and high schools as places where drug-related activity is widespread and can have an insidious influence on non-users. Survey results released in August by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University stated that 44% of middle school students and 80% of high school students have personally witnessed illegal drug possession, use or sales at school, or have seen students high or drunk. Twenty-two percent of all youths surveyed said they witness such activity at school on a weekly basis.

Judge advises school districts that are interested in implementing testing programs to become familiar with state laws so that their policies and procedures will be in conformance. Most of the momentum for random testing policies is coming from the local districts themselves, Judge says, although a handful of states such as New Jersey and Louisiana have defined testing as a statewide priority.

He adds that some school districts still are largely unaware of what they can and cannot do regarding testing, even to the point of not knowing that they can require testing of any student for whom they have a reasonable suspicion of illegal drug use.

Measuring success

Judge believes some opponents of random testing programs in schools will tend to hold school districts to an unreasonable standard in evaluating the success of testing efforts. Studies have yielded somewhat mixed results thus far on the impact of student testing. But Judge believes that since most young drug users in schools fall somewhere between the “user” and “abuser” classification and do not meet clinical criteria for addiction, testing programs can have a deterrent effect for youths who are still in control of their decision making.

He believes school districts will continue to adopt policies for random testing of athletes and participants in other activities. But he warns that districts should approach testing as but one tool to be used in balance with other prevention initiatives.

Judge has been critical of the addiction treatment community's overall failure to embrace the benefits of drug testing as an integral component of its work (see March/April 2007 issue). He believes that treatment professionals who work with youths tend to appreciate the importance of testing to a greater degree than professionals who work with adults. Unfortunately, he says, most adolescent programs are so overwhelmed with the caseloads they currently maintain that they struggle to identify opportunities to initiate work with school districts.