The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

August 12, 2013

A Don McCormack column: While noble in concept, school districts already have enough on their plates

By DON McCORMACK - donmac@suite224.net
Sports Editor

— The fact the Struthers school district will be testing student-athletes for drugs beginning with the upcoming school year may seem to be a radical step around these parts, but in truth, the concept is anything but trendsetting nationally.

In fact, in the early 1990s, many school districts across the country began to kick the tires on drug testing as a way  to try and combat drug and alcohol abuse by the young people who make up their district.

As expected, that idea led to what often happens — legal action.

In two United States Supreme Court cases — in 1995 and 2002 — the court upheld the constitutionality of testing  student-athletes for drugs and alcohol to include all students who participate in a particular competitive extracurricular activity.

In both of its rulings, he court said deterring drug or alcohol abuse was more important than privacy.

Fair enough.

But the elephant in the room is this question — does it work?



Reverse effect?

The University of Michigan tackled the subject head on, conducting a comprehensive study of the concept of high schools testing student-athletes for drugs and alcohol in 2003.

That groundbreaking study concluded that, believe it or not, at school districts that had testing policies in place, the percentage of student-athletes testing positive was slightly higher than those without policies in place.

The conclusions of the study showed that 21 percent of student-athletes were using drugs or alcohol — compared to 19 percent at districts without policies.

Those results were confirmed by a study conducted by the National Center for Educational Evaluation.



Gender issues

A more recent study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that policies testing for drugs or alcohol did not stop male student-athletes from using either.

The same study concluded having testing policies in place on served as a deterrent for female student-athletes in districts that boasted of positive student-educator relationships and clearcut rules.



More recently...

The National Drug Abuse Institute put together a study in 2008. At that time, 14 percent of school districts across the United States had testing policies for drugs and alcohol.

That study found that of the school districts with such policies in place, almost all of them tested athletes.

Further, 65 percent of those districts tested all students in every extracurricular activity.

On top of that, more than 25 percents of those districts that tested for drugs and alcohol tested all students. That, however, is outside of the Supreme Court's recommendations.

The aforementioned 2011 study by the University of Pennsylvania showed 27 percent of districts with testing policies in place tested all students.



Stating their cases

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association has been drug testing student-athletes for the past seven years.

That state's counterpart to the Ohio High School Athletic Association conducts between 500 and 650 tests on student-athletes annually, the cost surpassing $100,000, according to the New York Times.

That falls in line with programs conducted in other states, such as the Florida High School Athletic Association and  the Illinois High School Association. Testing programs in those states both exceed $100,000 in cost, for tests of more than 600 and 650 student-athletes, respectively.

Tests run at a cost of between $15 and $35 each.



Taking a stand

Several organizations have lined up in opposition of suspicionless drug or alcohol testing of students, including:

One of the myriad of their concerns is how the tests are conducted. These organizations point out that many districts that have testing policies in place have a requirement for students to produce urine samples while school officials are perched outside the door, listening for the sounds of urination, which is supposed to guard against specimens being tampered with.

Such a requirement puts school officials in danger of being sued for sexual assault.



Man in the know

Dan Romer is the director of the Adolescent and Health Communications Institutes at the Anneberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which conducted one of the above-mentioned studies.

He offers a word of caution to school districts that are contemplating enacting policies to test their students for drugs or alcohol.

“This study sends a cautionary note to the estimated 20 percent or more of high schools that have joined the drug-testing bandwagon,” Romer said. “We find little evidence that this approach to minimizing teen drug use is having the deterrent effect its proponents claim.

“Schools that have joined the rush to implement testing should ask themselves whether this strategy has been oversold.”



The real test

With pretty much every school district in Ohio facing severe budget cuts, one can only wonder where the dollars would come from if more and more districts in the Buckeye State would follow the lead of Struthers and if it makes, well, sense.

Perhaps the more practical conclusion is to ask school districts to continue to do what they do best — educate our young.

While at the same time, asking, urging, begging, if you will, those who are best equipped to deal with teaching our future leaders right from wrong to continue to do so — their parents.

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.