Implementation of an Aggressive Random Drug-Testing Policy in a Rural School District: Student Attitudes regarding Program Fairness and Effectiveness

Article excerpt

In their efforts to reduce illicit drug use among students, many school districts have implemented random, suspicionless drug-testing (RDT) programs. The modest but steady growth of these programs (1,2) was spurred on by 2 US Supreme Court decisions over the past decade (1995 Vernonia School District v Acton and 2002 Earls v Tecumseh School District) that upheld the use of school RDT policies. Despite these rulings, serious debate continues regarding their appropriateness. Critics cite concerns about the potential for civil rights violations, unclear or unsupported criteria for determining which student populations are at high risk of using drugs, test accuracy, cost ($15-$100 per test), and the effectiveness and relative efficiency of RDT programs as compared to other prevention efforts. (1,3-5) Proponents argue that RDT programs offer schools a more aggressive approach to drug prevention than common risk-and resiliency-based programs and that anecdotal evidence suggests that RDT leads to less overall drug use among students, thus reducing opportunities for drug-use and peer pressure effects.(2,6,7)

Effectiveness of Drug Testing in Schools

Examinations of the effectiveness of RDT programs have produced mixed results. (8,9) In their examination of data from the Youth, Education, and Society and Monitoring the Future studies, Yamaguchi et al found no relationship between the presence of RDT and past 12-month marijuana or other illicit drug use for the overall student populations of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, male student athletes, or students indicating they had used marijuana within the past 12 months. (2) While critics have hailed these results as clear evidence that RDT is ineffective, (10) the authors noted several limitations in study methodology that greatly moderate such conclusions: the cross-sectional design meant that causality between RDT and substance use could not be determined; a single school administrator reported on drug-testing issues, while student reports of awareness and views on drug testing were not solicited; and the use of a 12-month reporting period when students could only be tested during 9 of those months (eg, students could restrict use to summer months when testing was not provided).

Conversely, Goldberg et al examined pilot data from the Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification (SATURN) project at 2 Oregon high schools (1 experimental and 1 control site). (11) Their results indicated that past 30-day illicit drug and ergogenic (performance enhancing) use significantly decreased for athletes in the drug-testing school as compared to the control school, which experienced an increase in substance use across both categories. While the SATURN project's design allowed for causal interpretation supporting the effectiveness of RDT, generalizability of these results is limited by the small sample and the lack of random assignment to treatment conditions.

Attitudes, Implementation, and Effectiveness

The SATURN project findings were somewhat contradictory with regard to outcome and attitudinal variables. Despite reductions in substance use, those in the drug-testing group believed that there were fewer benefits of RDT and fewer negative consequences of drug use, that authority figures were more tolerant of substance use, that their peers engaged in more substance use, and that they demonstrated a greater attitudinal preference for risky drug-use behavior as compared to athletes in the control group. Each of these attitudes can be categorized as a risk factor for increased substance use, thus raising the question of whether RDT may decrease short-term substance use while sowing the seeds for longer term increases.

To date, the SATURN project has provided the only attempt to investigate student attitudes regarding implementation of a new RDT policy. Student attitudes toward RDT are likely to be critical factors affecting the implementation of drug-testing policies that are often seen as controversial by students, parents, and other community stakeholders. …