Schools, Drug Use in

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Schools, Drug Use in

Adolescence is the age at which most people first experiment with alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Not surprisingly, school, a neutral site away from the watchful eye of parents, is the first place where many young people talk about, have access to, and even begin to use these substances. Alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are the first drugs students are likely to abuse. Other drugs of concern in schools include inhalants, which are increasingly popular with younger students; so-called club drugs such as ectasy (MDMA); methamphetamines; cocaine; heroin; LSD; phencyclidine (PCP); and prescription drugs used for nonmedical purposes, including pain relievers, tranquilizers, sedatives, and stimulants like amphetamines and Ritalin.

Although the use of alcohol and tobacco by school-age young people is illegal, it is both legal and socially acceptable for adults. As a result, students can generally get alcohol and cigarettes fairly easily. They are also constantly exposed to advertising for beer, wine, and cigarettes that portrays drinking and smoking as desirable. Not surprisingly, alcohol and cigarettes are the most frequently used substances in schools, and the ones most likely to lead to dangerous consequences or serious health risks in the long term. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if current tobacco use trends continue, approximately 5 million children in the United States aged 18 years or less in 2000 will die prematurely as adults because they began to smoke cigarettes during adolescence. Even more disturbing is the estimate that alcohol kills 6.5 times more youth than all other illegal drugs combined, according to Ted Miller, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

See Organizations of Interest at the back of Volume 3 for address, telephone, and URL.

Unfortunately, parents, students, and society as a whole may not view alcohol use and smoking as a problem, so students may have the impression that these substances are not really drugs and using them is not really dangerous. Most schools have education programs designed to deter alcohol abuse and smoking.

Prevention and Education Efforts

The primary effort to prevent drug abuse in schools has been sub- stance abuse education. More than 90 percent of high schools and 85 percent of elementary and middle schools now have alcohol-, tobacco-, or drug use–prevention programs. Such programs inform students about the risks of drug abuse, smoking, and drinking, and give guidance in resisting peer pressure to use substances. From Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign in the early 1980s to the more recent high-profile antidrug advertising campaigns, young people are hearing the antidrug message in school and at home. Many nationwide programs such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) America and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions, originally Students Against Drunk Driving) have become standard features of the school landscape. DARE is now implemented in over 75 percent of U.S. school districts and in fifty-two countries around the world. Many other excellent drug use prevention programs are developed each year for use in schools.

See Organizations of Interest at the back of Volume 3 for address, telephone, and URL.

Detection and Drug Tests

Efforts to detect drugs and drug abusers in schools are essentially efforts to deter drug abuse. School officials hope that good drug detection will discourage students from abusing or possessing drugs on school grounds for fear of getting caught. However, all forms of drug testing and detection in schools are controversial and raise ethical and legal questions. The effectiveness of such programs is debatable as well.

Drug Testing of Students. Drug testing of students can take several forms. Breath analysis machines can test for recent alcohol use. Urine testing is by far the most common form of drug testing in schools. Hair analysis, not yet common in schools, may be able to accurately test for long-term use of certain drugs. While high-school athletes are somewhat more likely than other students to use anabolic steroids, steroid detection requires very costly tests that few schools purchase.

Breath analysis machines, commonly known as Breathalyzers, detect and measure the alcohol present in air that is breathed out. The Breathalyzer can detect whether a person has been drinking alcohol within the past few hours. Some schools now use the Breathalyzer at school functions such as proms to refuse entrance to students whose test results show that they have blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels above the legal limit. Most states require BAC levels below 0.08 or 0.10 for drivers over 21 and BAC levels from 0.00 to 0.02 for minors. School officials reason that students are more likely to use alcohol before such social events, and are also likely to be driving before and afterward, thus risking their lives and the lives of others. Like other drug testing policies in schools, Breathalyzer use in schools is controversial.

Tests that detect drugs in urine are being used in more and more schools. Urine tests detect the presence of numerous drugs, and can detect use of marijuana, amphetamines, and cocaine within a few days to weeks after use (depending on the type of drug). Because it detects use of marijuana, the most heavily used illegal drug (after alcohol and tobacco, which are illegal for youth), many school officials feel urine testing is a valuable tool in their strategy to deter drug use. However, some students claim they can pass urine tests despite recent drug use by using certain cleansing or masking solutions or by otherwise tampering with the sample. Others claim that urine testing only increases the use of drugs that cannot be detected by means of urine testing, such as alcohol or other drugs that leave the body quickly.

To detect long-term drug use, a few private schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, have begun hair testing for drugs among all students, regardless of any suspicion of drug use (a practice called suspicionless drug testing). Other schools are using hair testing for athletes or other subgroups of students. Analysis of a small hair sample can detect with some accuracy the use of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, and PCP. The American Civil Liberties Union intends to challenge suspicionless hair testing in court on the grounds that its accuracy is not proven and it may be racially biased.

Dogs in Drug Detection. In the late 1990s many school districts began using scent-trained dogs to detect drugs or other contraband material (such as weapons) on school property, including students' lockers, public areas, and cars parked on school grounds. Schools that use detection dogs typically prepare students and staff for the program by explaining how searches will be conducted, what constitutes school property (such as lockers), and what will occur if drugs are detected.

Legal and Ethical Issues of Drug Testing and Detection in Schools

Detection and testing for drugs in schools, whether by use of detection dogs, urine or hair samples, or the Breathalyzer, is controversial. Those in favor argue that such methods are effective, safe ways to help keep schools drug-free, and serve to deter students from using illegal drugs or bringing them onto school grounds. Some students like the fact that drug testing gives them a legitimate excuse to resist peer pressure to use drugs. Those against drug testing claim that these methods violate students' privacy and their Fourth Amendment right (which protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure), as well as the legal principle that insists that people are innocent until proven guilty. Opponents further believe that it creates an unhealthy climate of mistrust that runs counter to the primary educational mission of schools. Finally, some claim that these programs are not as effective as they might seem, and therefore not worth the expense or the infringements on students' rights.

Who Is to Be Tested? Schools sometimes test students for drugs when there is a reasonable suspicion of drug or alcohol use. In suspicion-based testing, schools should follow criteria to avoid giving the impression that test selection is arbitrary or that certain students may be targeted or picked on. Many schools avoid suspicion-based testing because it is too difficult to carry out in a way that everyone agrees is impartial and fair. The U.S. Supreme Court stated numerous problems with suspicion-based drug testing of students in its 1995 decision, Veronia School District v. Acton.

Random or suspicionless drug testing of all students as a condition of attending public school is widely thought to be unconstitutional, because access to education is considered a fundamental right. In 2000 the Lockney, Texas, school district adopted a policy of testing all students in grades 7 to 12 for drugs. The program was struck down by a federal district judge in 2001, and the district did not appeal the ruling. Private schools, which are voluntary, can legally perform random or suspicionless drug tests on all students without threat of a lawsuit. Public schools can, however, exclude students with positive drug tests from extracurricular activities because such activities are voluntary.

Drug testing is more commonly performed as a requirement for participation in sports or other school programs. In the early twenty- first century, about 5 percent of schools nationwide have performed drug tests on student athletes. About 2 percent have tested students involved in other extracurricular activities, according to Lloyd D. Johnston, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Another trend is to test students who drive to school. The legality of suspicionless drug testing of certain subgroups of the student population is still being decided in the courts.

See Organizations of Interest at the back of Volume 3 for address, telephone, and URL.

In 1995 the Supreme Court upheld the right of the school district in Veronia, Oregon, to test student athletes for drugs. In the decision known as Veronia School District v. Acton, the court ruled that randomly drug testing school athletes was constitutional. That case relied heavily on evidence that the Vernonia district had a serious drug problem and that athletes were "leaders of the drug culture." The ruling also stated concern that athletes could put themselves and other players at risk of physical harm while under the influence of drugs.

In 2002 the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case from Tecumseh, Oklahoma, where the school district is randomly testing all students involved in interscholastic activities, including band, cheerleading, and after-school clubs. In the Tecumseh case, the crucial legal question involves whether school boards must document a serious drug problem in their schools before adopting random-testing programs. The Supreme Court was expected to rule on this case in 2002.

Those who support testing athletes and extracurricular participants have argued that these students are role models for other students and have a great influence on perceptions of what is acceptable. Some drug test supporters would prefer to test all students but understand that limited testing is the next best thing. Opponents claim that such selective testing is not fair. Most research shows that student athletes and other extracurricular participants are actually less likely to abuse drugs than those who do not participate in sports or other activities. One fear is that drug testing these students may discourage participation among the students who need it most, such as those who have experimented with drugs but have not become regular users, while targeting the most active students for scrutiny. Some drug-free students may avoid participation simply because they are too embarrassed by the urine sample collection process.

Zero-Tolerance Policies

All schools, especially those that perform drug testing, must deal with those students who are caught using drugs or who fail a drug test. Commonly, students identified as drug or alcohol users are expected to enter drug or alcohol abuse prevention programs or, in some cases, treatment programs designed for students in their situation. In the mid-1990s, so-called zero-tolerance policies became the norm for dealing with drug and alcohol use in schools. Zero tolerance means that a school will automatically and severely punish a student for a variety of specific offenses. Punishments usually involve suspension or expulsion, and sometimes referral to law enforcement. In 1998, 88 percent of schools had policies of zero tolerance for alcohol and/or drugs. Like other issues relating to drugs in schools, zero-tolerance policies are controversial.


In addition to concern for the health, safety, and well-being of their students, school officials have good reason to try to prevent drug abuse among students. Drug use interferes with quality education in a number of important ways. Students who use drugs may have problems with learning, motivation, memory, judgment, and school performance. They are also far more likely to cause disruptive behavior in school, thus interfering with the rights of all students to an education. Amid all the controversy and legal debate, schools will continue to struggle with the best ways to keep schools and students safe and drug-free.

see also Adolescents, Drug and Alcohol Use; Breathalyzer; Dogs in Drug Detection; Dropouts and Substance Abuse; Drug Testing Methods and Analysis; Prevention; Ritalin; Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD); Zero Tolerance.


Because student drug use was increasing in Veronica, Oregon, the school system began requiring that a drug test consent form be signed by its athletes. School officials believed that some of the athletes were among the leaders of the school's drug culture. James Acton, a 7th grader, refused to sign the consent form. As a result, he was not allowed to play on the school's football team. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that detecting drug use among student athletes was more important than the athletes privacy and supported the testing.