Madras Shorts Students' Right to Privacy 

By Jane Weinkrantz

    Just when you thought that the Bush administration had run out of tests and testing, Bertha Madras, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has unveiled a plan to expand random drug testing for students participating in extracurricular activities for grades 6-12. Last month, Madras discussed a federal grant program designed to pay for these tests. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that schools could drug test kids who participate in extracurricular activities, about 1,000 schools in the country test their athletes and club participants. Of those, 497 already receive federal funding. While NCLB remains underfunded and ineffectual, the administration has ponied up another $1.6 million in federal drug testing grants, increasing the $35 million they have distributed on this questionable practice since 2003. The expanded program would pay for another 500 schools to test students who participate in extracurricular activities.

    Testing would occur during class time. Madras told Newsweek/MSNBC that, " Under ideal conditions the testing is random, which is critical. If it's a urine test, the child is asked to come down to the nurse's office. They walk in solo, they deposit a sample as they would in any doctor's office, they give the sample to the nurse who puts a little dip stick in, and the dip stick will say positive or negative." At a presentation before the Clark County School Board in Nevada, Madras told her audience, " Drug test results don't go to future colleges. They don't go to future employers. They only go to people who have a right to know, parents and someone who can help." Madras claims the test results are confidential, but it seems obvious that classmates would notice one of their peers being summoned to the nurse’s office during class and, if that student is not allowed to play a sport or participate in an activity that afternoon, draw their own conclusions. So much for the right to privacy!

    Madras’s phrase "under ideal conditions" is a big one. Although the program gives schools money to complete drug tests, it provides few to no guidelines on how that should be done. Jennifer Kern, a research associate at the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance in New York told Newsweek, " There are model policies that are put out, but there is no legislation or guidelines for schools beyond the Supreme Court decision. [Schools] are not allowed to use the test results in certain ways legally, but in terms of how it is implemented, it varies. For some schools there's no verification on the type of labs they're using so there's a lot of concern that schools are using labs that are not certified or they are using their own staff. No protocol on how schools have to do it exists, so there is concern about schools not knowing what to do, leading to breaches of confidentiality and false positives…There's no outside monitoring. There's no regulation and there's no check or balance. While some schools describe the program as non-punitive, some schools have very harsh repercussions as far as removing kids from their extracurricular activities for the rest of the year or the rest of their school career. Some schools provide counseling but some provide no services to the students if they test positive. In a lot of places there isn't much money and there aren't many resources for students who test positive."

    Madras emphasized that schools should contact the parents and suggest that a child get help if he or she tests positive. However, again, there is no legislation requiring that a student who tests positive will actually receive any serious counseling. Nor, assuming that a student is discovered to have a serious drug problem, does the grant pay for rehabilitation. Often, counselors recommend that a kid who is drug-involved develop an interest in extra-curricular activities, which, of course, he or she could be barred from or stigmatized, based on a positive test.

    The program is modeled ---to the extent that anything so shapeless can be modeled---after the practice of military drug testing. Madras claims that initially 27% of soldiers randomly tested positive for drugs. Now the figure is 1.5%. However, Andre Hollis, Deputy Assistant Director of Defense for Counternarcotics describes military drug testing as a much more elaborate and controlled procedure that requires three separate screenings before a result can be called positive. Everyone who comes in contact with the sample during the procedure must initial the vial and be accountable for their results. If a soldier’s urine contains low levels of a drug, the result is reported back to the commanding officer as negative. (This could go a long way in explaining the decrease in positives from 27% to 1.5%.) "The system is really built to protect the service member whose sample is coming through the laboratory," according to army Col. Mick Smith. It is not at all clear that the same can be said about school drug testing.

    Take the case of Mike Brown, a 17 year-old from Shallowater High School in Texas whose allergy medication created a false positive result for cocaine. The school’s testing procedure did not ask him to list other medications he was taking. When Mike’s result was positive, the school contacted his mother, Lori, who had him tested repeatedly by her private physician. As she suspected, Mike was not using cocaine. The school lab claimed to have 100% accuracy and did not believe Mike or his mother. Over the next few months, Mike was drug-tested with a frequency that the Browns felt could not be realistically called random. After a drug tester yelled at Mike for not providing enough urine, his parents opted not to permit him to be tested any more which meant he could no longer participate in any extracurricular activities at Shallowater.

    Random drug-testing seems like a lose-lose situation for all involved. A student who tests positive gets little or no help in confronting their drug use; a student who tests negative cannot help but feel surrounded by a sense of distrust and suspicion anyway; a parent whose child is tested may think that the school district is overreaching and doing the job of a parent---they may already be dealing with the problem at home and not have shared that information with the school---the teacher who teaches the child has their class interrupted for this exercise in futility; the coach or advisor who is working with the child now has their relationship tainted by the practice and may have to bar the student from participating, even if the contribution that student makes to a team or club is the only thing he or she does that generates any positive self-esteem and the school nurse who is probably already overworked has a new and burdensome responsibility that makes him or her very unpopular with everyone. However, Madras told Newsweek/MSNBC that---surprise, surprise---kids love being randomly drug tested. "When I go to schools that have the federal grant they say, ‘We love it! It gives me an excuse not to use at parties because kids are always pushing on us,’ but none of them say they're angry with the school. What I've heard above all is "thank you." I wonder if she was showered with flowers and greeted as a liberator, too?

    Maybe if random drug tests actually stopped kids from using drugs , the violation of student privacy might seem like a small price to pay. However, a 2003 study of drug testing by the University of Michigan found no difference in drug use between students who attended schools where drug tests were administered and schools where they were not. The study included 94,000 students at 900 schools. In the results of an expanded follow up study, the researchers stated, "The strongest predictor of student drug use, is students’ attitudes toward drug use and their perceptions of peer use. The authors recommend policies that address these key values, attitudes and perceptions as effective alternatives to drug testing." Yet, once again, instead of working to generate policies that might really have an impact on serious issues, our government is willing to have a knee-jerk reaction that erodes our civil rights and produces questionable, if not downright negative, results. Sound familiar?


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