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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, January 31, 2003

Island Voices
Drug-testing students wrong

Pamela G. Lichty is with the Drug Policy Forum of Hawai'i; Vanessa Chong is with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i.

In his op ed piece of Jan. 4, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle argues for random drug testing of our students. We are all concerned about teenage drug use, but widespread drug testing is not the way to address this problem.

While Mr. Carlisle describes drug testing as a way "to promote an environment where students can grow, learn and thrive," in reality, drug testing will do just the opposite.

It will create an adversarial environment in which the teachers become an extension of law enforcement, and students may turn to more harmful drugs such as ice that remain in their systems for a shorter time than milder substances such as marijuana. And as for alcohol, used by over 80 percent of high school students, well, that won't be tested for at all.

It is telling that the Tecumseh, Okla., drug-testing policy, which was upheld in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (the Earls case cited by Mr. Carlisle) is nearly unprecedented among the nation's school districts. Only about 3 percent of the approximately 15,000 U.S. school districts currently drug-test some portion of their students.

Suspicionless drug testing has in fact been avoided by major urban school districts. These school districts do not downplay the dangers posed by alcohol and other drugs. Nor do they concede defeat in the face of drug use. Rather, the vast majority of the country's school administrators — particularly those presiding over the districts hardest hit by drugs — recognize that drug testing is not the answer, or even a positive response, to the problem of student drug use.

Most school districts have rejected drug testing as a false and costly panacea. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court's decision in the Earls case, we must demand that our schools establish and strengthen programs that nurture students' self-confidence and provide them with the skills necessary to develop into strong, independent-thinking adults prepared to live productive lives.

As educators and researchers have long acknowledged, adolescent drug use often has less to do with drugs per se than with the lack of life options and family supports for many of today's youth. Instead of squandering precious school funds, sowing seeds of distrust between students and teachers, and raising the bar for extracurricular participation through suspicionless drug testing, schools should invest resources in making after-school extracurricular activities as accessible and attractive as possible for all students.

Drug testing would cost an estimated $15 to $30 per student. How could we justify spending money on such a punitive scheme when our schools are hurting for textbooks, maintenance and other basics?

The Supreme Court decision not only ignored the reasoned opinions of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Education Association, social workers and others that school drug testing is unlikely to accomplish its stated goal of reducing substance abuse among students, it seriously eroded the U.S. Constitution. Now, more than ever, parents, teachers and school administrators need to resist blanket drug-testing schemes and opt for programs that will help our young people thrive.

Unfortunately, the Earls decision is part of an alarming trend to disregard the right to privacy and bodily integrity in the name of the war on drugs. Indeed, with respect to drug testing, society appears ready to create a "drug exception" to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Recent proposals by Senate President Robert Bunda, Gov. Linda Lingle and the Honolulu prosecutor for drug-testing students should serve as a wake-up call for parents and teachers alike to actively oppose drug-testing policies by our schools and develop positive, creative and honest drug education programs in their stead. Rather than testing students, schools should act in the best interests of their students and support programs that provide honest, science-based information on drug use and abuse.

Suspicionless drug testing of students achieves none of these objectives, leaving students more, not less vulnerable, to drug abuse.