Several Woodward Academy parents sent me notes a few weeks ago about a surprising letter that came home from the College Park private school announcing that students will be subjected to random drug tests starting in fall of 2013.
Those parents were not happy about the plan to test randomly selected students. Many private schools around the country test their students for drugs, although there is debate over the efficacy of such policies.
One Woodward parent wrote: “I’m completely opposed to the school’s decision…It’s interesting to note that all studies conducted in regards to student drug testing indicate that these programs are ineffective at reducing drug use.” Another told me: “I am considering other schools for my son next year.”
I went to the National Institute on Drug Abuse web site for background on student drug testing and found this question and answer:
What has research determined about the utility of random drug tests in schools?
There is not very much research in this area, and the early research shows mixed results. A study published in 2007 (Goldberg et al, J. Adolesc Health, 41: 421-29, 2007) found that student athletes who participated in randomized drug testing had overall rates of drug use similar to students who did not take part in the program, and in fact some indicators of future drug abuse increased among those participating in the drug testing program. Because of the limited number of studies on this topic more research is warranted.
In 2011, researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that male students in high schools that drug test report no less recent use of alcohol, marijuana, or cigarettes than peers in schools that don’t test. However, the study found that drug testing could be effective with female students, but only in schools “that have good social climates, where the students and adults respect each other and the rules of the school are clear and enforced fairly.”
At the time, study co-author Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent and Health Communication Institutes of APPC, said, “This study sends a cautionary note to the estimated 20 percent or more of high schools that have joined the drug testing bandwagon. We find little evidence that this approach to minimizing teen drug use is having the deterrent effect its proponents claim. And only in schools that have a very good school climate, reported by about a third of students, does this intervention exert a protective influence on adolescent girls. Schools that have joined the rush to implement testing should ask themselves whether this strategy has been oversold.”
If Woodward students fail their first urine test, they won’t be kicked out of the school. However, a second positive test for drugs will lead to the child’s withdrawal or dismissal from the school, according to the AJC story. In the story , the school says most parents are pleased with the policy.
If you were a parent, how would this decision sit with you?
The elite private school where tuition is $21,950 a year will start random drug testing students in grades nine through 12 next fall. School President Stuart Gulley said the testing will be done not because there’s hard evidence of drug abuse at the school but because of a “large number of anecdotal accounts of drug use not just at Woodward, but throughout metro Atlanta.”
Students will be randomly selected and tested. The goal is to test 40 percent of the approximately 1,000 students at the academy’s high school level by the end of the year. Teachers and administrators — including Gulley — will also be randomly tested.
“There’s certainly the impulse to be aggressive about this,” said Paul Bianchi, the headmaster at the Paideia School, which instead of testing for drugs focuses on drug education. “But I think [random drug tests] create too much of an adversarial relationship in the school between adults and students.”
Woodward has no hard evidence of growing drug use by students, said Gulley, who can only remember two confirmed cases of students abusing drugs in his four years there. Still, parents have “overwhelmingly” embraced the testing plan, he said.
Suzy Ellis is one of them. “It gives students another opportunity to say ‘no’ to the peer pressure around them these days to do drugs,” said Ellis, whose daughter is a senior at the school. “They can say ‘no’ because my school tests for drugs and my parents might find out.”
Woodward says about half a dozen parents, such as Boyd Johnson, have questioned the testing. Johnson calls it an intrusion on “personal privacy rights and the parental role.”
“It’s almost guilty until proven innocent,” he said. “I think the school needs to be teaching the importance of privacy rights instead of having random drug testing.”
The tests, which will detect illegal and prescription drugs but not alcohol, will be administered about every two weeks. The results will be reported only to parents and the school’s administration.
Wesleyan Athletic Director Marc Khedouri adopted the random testing policy at the school when he was dean of students. He said it has reduced drug problems at Wesleyan and not hurt enrollment.
“We’ve probably talked to five or six other schools that are in the process of considering adopting a random testing policy,” he said. “Woodward isn’t the only one. There will be others.”
Like Paideia, some other private schools — including the Lovett School and Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School — are stressing drug education over testing.
The schools only test a student if there’s a strong suspicion that he has used drugs. “You’re not educating the student’s best self” when he is taking drugs, said Bianchi, Paideia’s headmaster. “… That’s part of the deal that you’re going to try hard and grow, academically and in personal ways. If you’re under the influence … not everyone is entering into a clear-minded contract.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has successfully sued public school districts in state and federal courts for violating students’ civil rights through random drug testing. Public schools now have to prove that drug use is a danger to students before testing them.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog