Student Drug Testing Is Intrusive, Unnecessary and Ineffective

Story Date: 
Aug 28, 2015

Over the past several months, the ACLU of Wisconsin has heard from people concerned about public schools around the state instituting random drug testing of students in sports and extracurricular activities and those who park in school parking lots. For example, schools in Crivitz[1] and Oconomowoc[2] recently joined a national trend in which the proportion of public high schools that randomly tests students grew from 14% in 2006 to 18% in 2012.[3]

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld drug testing of students who voluntarily participate in sports and extracurricular activities,[4] that doesn’t mean such testing makes sense.  Students do not surrender all privacy at the school-house gate, and schools should not invade privacy just because the courts have allowed them to do so under some circumstances. The ACLU opposes random drug testing because it is intrusive and demeaning, because it is ineffective and possibly counterproductive, and because resources spent on testing and punishment would be better spent on prevention and treatment.

The testing procedure intrudes upon students’ privacy and communicates a school’s profound distrust of the children they are teaching.  The procedure requires students to disclose any over-the-counter or prescription drugs they are taking, effectively revealing private medical information. It requires them to strip to their underwear under the watchful eye of the person collecting the urine sample, enter a stall in which the toilet has been disabled from flushing and the toilet water has been dyed, pee into a sample cup or bottle while the collector listens just outside the door, hand the sample to the collector, who determines whether it is warm and otherwise appears to be genuine and not diluted, and then redress in the inspector’s presence.[5] All of these intrusions are imposed on students who have done nothing to arouse suspicion of drug use, other than play field hockey or join the chess club. The vast majority of tests come back negative – about one positive test for every 125 students tested.  Hundreds of innocent students, then, are put through this humiliating procedure to detect a handful of drug users. And if a test comes back positive – which can happen not only because of illegal drug use, but from taking certain legal medications or eating certain foods – the student will, at a minimum, be excluded from activities in which he or she had previously participated, so other students will know about the positive test.

Furthermore, random testing has not been shown to achieve its purported goals of reducing drug use among students.  While a few studies have shown limited short-term reductions in drug use among athletes and other students directly subject to testing, the reductions were short-lived and no similar reductions occurred in the rest of the student population at schools with testing programs.  Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the leading professional organization of doctors for children, reaffirmed its long-time opposition to drug testing “because of the lack of evidence for its effectiveness.”[6]  The Academy has also observed that random drug testing can have unintended negative consequences that could outweigh whatever reductions in drug use may occur among athletes and students involved in extracurriculars. For example, random drug testing can harm the educational process “by creating an environment of resentment, distrust, and suspicion.” It can lead to disciplinary consequences, such as suspension or expulsion, that adversely affect future educational and work success, or involvement in the criminal or juvenile justice systems that can have even more severe life consequences.  Fear of failing a drug test can lead students to skip school or even drop out to avoid further testing. Random testing can discourage students put off by the invasiveness of the testing procedure from participating in physically and psychologically healthy sports and extracurricular activities. And it may induce some students who use relatively less dangerous drugs that show up on the tests, such as marijuana, to switch to drugs that are not detected, but are substantially more dangerous, like inhalants.

For these reasons, the AAP recommends that resources be devoted to prevention and treatment programs, rather than random testing and punishment.  Brief professional advice has been shown to be successful in keeping students from using drugs in the first place and in getting those who have tried drugs to stop.  Recent advances in treatment of adolescents with addictions hold out the promise that students with more severe needs can receive meaningful help. Those students are more likely to come forward voluntarily or respond favorably to intervention in a school environment that fosters trust and is oriented toward treatment rather than surveillance and punishment.  The ACLU recognizes that alcohol, tobacco and drug use adversely affects adolescents and supports humane efforts to prevent teens from using and treating those who need treatment.  But schools should not force the children they are teaching to pee in a cup or funnel troubled youth who need help into the life-wrecking school-to-prison pipeline.



[3] Ingraham, “School drug tests: Costly, ineffective, and more common than you think,” Washington Post (April 27, 2015).

[4] Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995); Board of Educ. Indep.Sch. Dist. No. 92 v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002).

[5] This description is taken from Joy v. Penn-Harris-Madison Sch. Corp., 212 F.3d 1052, 1057 (7th Cir. 2000). It also tracks the specimen collection procedures for federal workplace drug testing. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Urine Specimen Collection Handbook for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs, HHS Pub. No. (SMA) 96-3114 (U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Servs. 1996).

[6] American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Substance Abuse, “Policy Statement: Adolescent Drug Testing Policies in Schools,” 135 Pediatrics 782,783 (April 2015).  For prior AAP policy statements on drug testing in schools, see AAP Committee on Substance Abuse and Council on School Health, “Policy Statement: Testing for Drugs of Abuse in Children & Adolescents: Addendum – Testing in Schools & at Home,” 119 Pediatrics 627 (March 2007); AAP Committee on Substance Abuse, “Policy Statement: Testing for Drugs of Abuse in Children & Adolescents,” 98 Pediatrics 305 (1996).