Why drug tests flunk

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of drug testing in public schools, will students come clean? Kids at schools in Indiana, where drug tests rule, say no way.

By Janelle Brown
Published April 22, 2002 7:05PM (EDT)

According to the students at rural Rushville Consolidated High School, there are a dozen ways to pass a drug test. You can march down to the local video store and buy a packet of "Karma" urine-cleansing powder. You can toss salt in your urine sample or drop in a strand of hair coated with hairspray. More often than not, it's simply a matter of choosing the right kinds of drugs, say the teens -- Ecstasy and alcohol disappear from your system within hours; marijuana can take up to 30 days.

Some of these methods -- such as the hairspray and the salt -- sound more mythic than magic, but whatever the kids are doing, it seems to work. The drug testing vans roll up to the Rushville campus every few weeks, and 25 students are randomly asked to produce a urine sample; yet hardly anybody is ever caught with drugs in their system. And it's not because they aren't doing drugs.

"I'd guess 75 percent of my class has tried marijuana," senior Adam Sadler says, sitting outside the cafeteria during a sunny lunchtime in April; his friends, perhaps trying to impress, estimate even higher. "A lot of kids do drugs at this school; though it kind of depends on who you are," one says. "The thing is to just make sure you pass the tests."

For six years, Rushville Consolidated has required random drug tests from between 75 to 90 percent of its 900 or so students, including anyone who participates in extracurricular activities or plays sports. Cheerleaders get tested; so does everyone who drives a car to school. Students must "volunteer" to pee in a cup in order to attend the senior prom. If they get caught with drugs, alcohol or tobacco in their systems, they are denied participation in these activities until they can prove they're clean.

It is an aggressive routine that is nearly identical to that of Tecumseh High School in Oklahoma, a program that attracted intense national scrutiny last month as the focus of spirited (some would say divisive) Supreme Court arguments on the constitutionality of student drug testing. Facing what turned out to be a fairly hostile panel of justices, Graham Boyd of the ACLU argued on behalf of Tecumseh student Lindsay Earls that random drug testing of all students in extracurricular activities is a violation of a student's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Judging by comments made by the justices -- including several sneering references by Justice Anthony Kennedy to "druggies" and "druggie schools" -- the odds are good that they'll reject Boyd's arguments to rule in favor of drug testing in school.

In anticipation of a ruling, perhaps in the next few weeks, many high schools are preparing to launch programs similar to the ones in Rushville and Tecumseh. Drug tests are an easy fix for school administrators who feel that they must take a public stand on drugs, but have had little success with drug education programs like DARE. They are banking on the theory that the fear of getting caught with tainted urine will compel students not to smoke pot or sniff coke.

But there is little evidence that drug testing programs -- which can be extremely costly -- have had any measurable impact on substance abuse in the schools that use them. So far, statistics reflect almost no change in student drug use in testing schools. And it is quite possible that, as students see drug testing more as a challenge than a deterrent, drug use actually increases with testing.

Meanwhile, say critics of the programs, students are being raised with an eroding idea of personal privacy, an adversarial relationship with authorities and a skewed education on why they shouldn't do drugs -- or, at least, why they shouldn't do certain drugs.

At Rushville, certainly, the kids say that they continue to smoke and sniff and sip to their hearts' content. "Drug testing is costing a lot of taxpayer money; but anything that's going on around here would be out of your system by the time you're tested," says one anonymous Rushville student. "I don't know anyone who is denied right now, but there are drugs everywhere."

The United States Supreme Court first cleared the way for drug testing of student athletes in 1995, in a case called Vernonia School District vs. Acton. In the Vernonia case, an Oregon high school football team was known to be rampantly using and dealing drugs, and authorities wanted to test them. The Supreme Court decision ruled that testing was permissible in this case because there was reasonable suspicion of drug use, and because athletes who got naked in locker rooms had lowered expectations of privacy as well as heightened requirements for safety on the field.

The court's decision didn't specify whether routine testing of all student athletes everywhere was constitutional, but many schools interpreted the ruling as permission to go ahead and test. In the years since the Vernonia ruling, an increasing number of schools have snuck in additional testing programs -- for teens who drive to school, sign up for extracurricular activities, participate in the school band. Currently, the random drug testing of athletes and students in extracurricular activities mainly takes place in a dozen or so conservative, Bible Belt and Southern states -- including Texas, Wyoming, Idaho, Alabama, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Florida and Indiana. (Wisconsin also has drug testing in its public schools).

As testing has grown in popularity, opposition to it has been expanding to include conservative parents, as well as angry students and civil libertarians. The testing doesn't just invade privacy and curtail civil rights, say critics, it encourages student alcohol use, encourages rebellion in adolescents ripe for battle and discourages extracurricular participation among the kids who need it most, while targeting the most active students for scrutiny.

Legal challenges to the policy at the state and federal level have multiplied along with the arguments against it. The Tecumseh case is the first case to make it to the Supreme Court since Vernonia, but the state of Indiana has been debating the topic nonstop since the mid-1990s.

Indiana is where the Bible Belt meets the fan belt: a conservative and religious state with an economy dominated by the automotive industry. Statistically speaking, Indiana does not have rampant teen drug problems: For example, nationally, 37 percent of all high school seniors smoked marijuana in the year 2000, according to the Monitoring the Future survey, yet only 35.4 percent of all Indiana seniors did. The state has had a small epidemic of methamphetamine use, and Ecstasy use is climbing -- as it is almost everywhere in the nation -- but it's hardly off the charts.

For locals, however, any drug use is too much drug use. Accordingly, local authorities have imposed a series of heavy-handed laws designed to keep kids (and adults) out of trouble, from drug roadblocks to mandatory curfews to the controversial drug testing programs.

Lawyer Ken Falk of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) has been battling these laws all the way, with a few successes and a few failures. On March 18, he lost his most recent crusade, a four-year-long lawsuit against the Northwestern School Corporation on behalf of the Linke family of Kokomo. In deciding for the school corporation, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that drug testing of students involved in extracurricular activities was legal under Indiana state law.

The Linke family lives in a charming, century-old farmhouse with a picturesque view of the pancake-flat fields outside the town of Kokomo, Ind. Like most locals, the Linkes work for the automotive industry, describe themselves as politically "conservative" and spend their weekends attending various Lutheran churches. Their three daughters are top students and good athletes: Rosa, now in college, was on the track team and yearbook, and was in the National Honor Society; Reena, a cheerful blond senior, is also on yearbook and track, sings in the choir and is a member of Students Against Drunk Driving and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes; dimpled Lydia, a home-schooled eighth grader, will be a cheerleader when she returns to public school in the fall.

The Linkes joke that they have always viewed the Indiana Civil Liberties Union as "the devil," although, as mother Noreen Linke puts it now, "When the devil is on the right side, where are you supposed to be?"

The Linkes contacted the devil (in the form of the ICLU) in 1999, when Reena and Rosa were told by Northwestern High School that they would have to submit to random drug testing if they wanted to continue to participate in their extracurricular activities. Although neither girl drank or did drugs, they felt strongly that their privacy was being invaded, and the family decided to file suit against the school district. They lost in the local courts but won in the appellate court in 2000 -- a victory that briefly put a halt to high school drug testing across the state -- before finally losing again in the state Supreme Court in March.

The Linkes' lawsuit sent a tremor of scandal through their small community. The parents were snubbed by conservative friends, and the family's mailbox filled with anonymous letters in strange handwriting, most of which accused them of thinking they were better than everyone else. At the same time, the girls discovered that many students and even some teachers were thrilled about the case; as a bonus, Rosa even had some new admirers. "I was very popular among the druggie crowd," she says wryly.

According to Northwestern School Corporation superintendent Ryan Snoddy, the high school implemented the drug tests after an anonymous student survey indicated that there was a "higher than average" number of drug users among the 580 students at the school; additionally, he says, there had been three student deaths attributed to illegal substances in the previous decade.

"This was something that needed to be addressed, and our reactive measures -- suspension, expulsion, parent notification -- weren't as effective as they could be," he says. "They occur after the fact, and after a death is too late." Northwestern was hardly a lax school -- students had already experienced drug-sniffing dogs and locker searches, abstinence-only and anti-drug education programs, a closed campus with video surveillance in the parking lots, and a zero-tolerance policy for suspicious or violent behavior. But drug tests were deemed a necessary addition to the list in January of 1999.

About 75 percent of Northwestern's middle school and high school students are now in the "pool" for drug testing (which halted temporarily during the lawsuit, but was reinstated in January) -- basically, anyone who plays sports, does extracurricular activities or drives to school. On a semiregular basis (Snoddy won't say how often), a drug testing trailer pulls up to the school; two dozen students are randomly selected from the pool, brought to the trailer and asked to produce a sample (if it takes them three hours to urinate, so be it).

The student urine is then examined for drugs, alcohol or tobacco, and those who test positive undergo a series of punishments, including counseling, a parent-teacher meeting and suspension from all sports and extracurricular activities until another test comes out negative.

The Linkes' primary objection to the Northwestern drug testing program has exclusively to do with civil liberty. Students have a basic right to privacy, they felt, especially if there is no reason to doubt them. "Our position has always been if a kid comes to school and is suspicious and is acting out, we don't have any problems with testing in that case," says Noreen Linke. But why, she wonders, should good kids, scholars and athletes, like her children, be humiliated by having to pee in a cup?

Administrators at Northwestern, and other schools, argue that random testing is a necessary step for the overall good of the school -- that in order to provide a "safe and secure environment for learning" (a phrase favored by principals and administrators alike) for all students, drug testing is a necessary evil, just like locker searches and closed campuses and video surveillance.

The key word in the debate is "unreasonable." Americans are protected by the Fourth Amendment from being forced to undergo unreasonable searches. But those in favor of school drug testing insist that the pervasiveness of drug problems among teens makes it perfectly reasonable to ask all students to undergo random drug testing as a way of solving the problems.

Superintendents and principals of schools where drug testing occurs enhance this argument by stressing that their programs are "voluntary." In reality, this is something of a fib. Requiring all public high school students to participate in drug testing programs would be a violation of the students' constitutional rights, and everyone knows it; but if students volunteer to do it, well, that's another matter altogether.

The school authorities where testing takes place insist that if the kids don't want to be tested, well then, they don't need to sign up for band or cheerleading or French club. This is called "volunteering" for testing, though this label blithely disregards the fact that extracurriculars are hardly "voluntary" for any kid interested in getting into a good college.

This is the sort of logic that makes civil libertarians shudder. Supreme Court decisions like Vernonia already have diminished the right to privacy for kids in public schools. How far, wonder critics of testing, can school authorities take this? Why stop just with drugs? Sex has become a problem in high schools, too, notes Noreen Linke: Does this mean we subject kids to chastity tests next?

"Parents have been conditioned that for the safety and peace of the whole, we'll give up whatever rights need to be given up," she complains. "Every time they can establish a health or safety issue for the kids, the school can do anything they want."

Equally worrisome, say civil libertarians, is the long-term social impact of such programs on personal privacy rights: What happens to the expectations of kids who grow up thinking it's perfectly normal to pee in cups when asked, and be observed by cameras at every corner? As the ICLU's Ken Falk points out, there's been a reduction in expectations about personal privacy over the years, and there is every indication that the erosion will continue. "The stuff we lose now we have a hard time getting back because of legal precedent," says Falk, "but also, we have a hard time getting it back because of attitude." Rarely are privacy rights that have been removed reinstated, he observes.

Indeed, at least at school, giving up Fourth Amendment rights is becoming a way of demonstrating patriotism. Scott Linke explains the mentality that is now prevalent in Kokomo about drug testing: "People say, 'I'm a good person, therefore I don't need my rights, because what do I have to lose? Go ahead, I'll show you I have nothing to hide.'

"Acceptance of this is a badge of honor," he says. "That's nefarious: It's being guilty until proven innocent. That's not the American way: It's the totalitarian police state. But an entire generation is being raised with this mentality."

Linke's fears are echoed in the words of Katie Sheehan, a bright and opinionated cheerleader at Rushville High, who says she isn't bothered by the drug testing at all. "I don't have anything to worry about, and I don't feel like it's a violation of my privacy," she says. "The things they test for aren't legal for anyone to do. Don't do them and you won't get in trouble."

Perhaps the Linkes and Falks of the world would be more understanding about the drug testing programs if there was evidence that drug use was waning because of them. But there isn't. "There's no proof the program works," says Noreen Linke. "With the drug issue, it's symbolism over substance: 'We don't care if you produce four studies that prove this program is ineffective, we have to do something and this is what we're going to do.'"

At Northwestern, superintendent Snoddy says that only a handful of tests ever come back positive; most of these are for tobacco, he says, with a few others testing positive for marijuana or prescription medicines like Ritalin. He also confirms that recent surveys about student drug use have shown no substantial change in intoxicant usage since drug testing began.

Still, Snoddy believes that testing sends a strong message to the kids: He says that some kids have told the principal that the program "makes a difference," and gives them a good excuse to deflect peer pressure. "Drug testing is another crutch for students to say 'No, I don't want to participate in that lifestyle; I don't want to run the risk of testing positive,'" he explains. "It provides an avenue for increasing the risk that Mom and Dad might find out, which leads to the opportunity for communication between parent and child."

Principals and administrators rely heavily on this kind of theory when talking about the success of their programs, perhaps because they have nothing else to rely on. No major studies have managed to gauge the effect of these programs on drug use. (One pilot study in Oregon has claimed that student athlete drug use is reduced 25 percent by random testing, but the study is only partially complete.)

Even at Rushville -- the only school in Indiana that continued testing students while the Northwestern case was in the courts -- six years of drug testing have had no quantifiable impact on student drug use. "The numbers have gone nowhere, if the truth be known," says Fred Smith, who tracks the program and student drug use surveys for the local Drug Free Schools program. Instead, he believes that the program is successful because he hears, word of mouth, that there are fewer parties. Of course, he says, "Here in Rush County, drug use wasn't rampant anyway" (a fact that causes some to question why drug testing was implemented in the first place).

Talk to the students at these schools, however, and you'll hear anecdotes explaining why there hasn't been a measurable change: Many kids are still doing drugs, but have become very wily about not getting caught. As the local teenage boys in Rushville report, kids at Rushville High have gotten quite devious in their drug taking, what with the potions and mixes. For example, the kids say that Rushville students are well aware that the drug testing trailer pulls up every month, and they time their drug binges accordingly: The day after the truck comes is apparently a popular time to smoke dope. For weekend binges, the students pick drugs that won't linger in their systems until Monday, such as abundant quantities of alcohol.

This is exactly what has happened at Northwestern, say students there. "When they instituted drug testing at Northwestern, marijuana went out the door. It became alcohol, because it gets out of your system faster," Reena Linke reports. "People get wasted all the time, even during the week."

Under these circumstances, drug tests are little more than an expensive means of finding out if students are smoking cigarettes or pot, but very little else. Every other drug that kids might be experimenting with on the weekends -- including the most dangerous drugs, like heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy -- will be out of their systems by Monday.

Opponents of testing also point out that by testing only the students who are in extracurricular activities or sports, the school fails to challenge kids who are most likely to be experimenting with drugs. Students who participate in wholesome extracurriculars like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or the Future Homemakers of America are the ones who are being singled out for testing, even though drug use is often more common among the kids who loiter in the parking lots, don't sign up for extracurricular activities, don't go to the prom and thus don't get tested.

"People who don't have anything to do are the ones who do the drugs; it's not the ones out at sports," notes Northwestern senior Jason Kirton. In fact, the fear of drug testing could easily deter troubled students from joining the extracurricular activities -- yearbook, sports, band -- that might direct them away from drugs and toward more rewarding pastimes.

Meanwhile, say students, drug testing makes a mockery of drug education. Instead of putting money into programs that might teach kids long-term lessons about the dangers of drugs, schools are relying on expensive drug testing programs that merely teach students that they need to pass certain tests at certain times.

As Kirton puts it, "Instead of giving them excuses not to do drugs, why don't you give them reasons not to do drugs? What about all the other things kids are faced with? Are you going to give them a test they have to pass for that, instead of a reason to say no?"

Even Ed Lyskowinski, the superintendent of Rush County Schools, a genial man who wears an American flag pin and a bottle-brush haircut, agrees that drug testing is not really teaching kids why they shouldn't do drugs. But there's only so much schools can do, he says. "I'm not sure drug testing will address the root reasons kids do drugs," he says. "We're addressing a symptom. We're mirrors of society, and these are societal problems, and schools are only one of many ways to address societal problems."

There are teens at Rushville, such as soccer-playing senior Jamie Winters, who say that the testing has chilled the impulse to try drugs and given her an excuse to deny peer pressure. "People say, 'Come on, it's no big deal,'" she explains. "We say, 'Yeah it is. There's too much riding for us to do that.' I think it cuts down drug use maybe 50 percent, people who cut down because they are afraid their parents might find out."

But Winters and her friends -- clean-cut and academically responsible cheerleaders and athletes -- are probably the kids who weren't going to be running out to toke up every weekend anyway. A different group of boys from the school, all of whom were eager to talk about how commonplace drug use is, laughed when asked if the program had any impact on their drug use.

If anything, the programs seem to give defiant teens even more motivation to thumb their noses at authority. Kirton, an ardently Mormon 19-year-old with the boyish countenance of a model out of Abercrombie & Fitch, reports: "If kids want to do drugs, they'll do it anyway. The only impact testing has had is to make students mad and angry and competitive with the school, to try to get away with things without them knowing. They make destructive choices about drugs because they think this is a way to get back at the school: 'They think they know me, but they don't!'"

Neither Rushville High School nor Northwestern High School feels like prison. Both schools are modern and affluent and strikingly well-appointed, with friendly and good-humored administrators who seem to get along well with their fresh-faced student population. Those in charge don't seem to be authoritarians out to repress civil liberties; instead, they appear to be concerned adults who feel like they have to do everything they can to keep kids healthy and alive and safe.

Says Lyskowinski, "We're not out to discriminate against kids or beat their rights down, we just want them to do what they are supposed to do. We're not trying to catch anyone, we just want to keep the problems out of school."

But minor encroachments on the civil liberties of teens, "for their own good," can lead to more dangerous incursions on the civil liberties of all Americans, say critics of testing. Schools around the country already are imposing ever more draconian (and humiliating) drug testing programs on their students. In Maryland, 18 seniors were pulled from their final exams in the spring of 2000 and drug tested on the stage of their high school auditorium simply because of a student rumor that the kids had taken drugs at a party. That same year, in Lockney, Texas, the local public high school imposed random drug testing for all students; kids who failed or refused to take the test were initially told that they would be suspended and forced to pick up trash by the freeway in orange jumpsuits. And that's just the public high schools; private religious high schools get away with far more severe measures.

Widespread mandatory drug testing of all students, even if it is the wish of many high school administrators, is unlikely to catch on too fast, even if the Supreme Court opens the door to such programs. The reason: At roughly $25 per test per student, a school that randomly tests only 25 students every few weeks will spend thousands of dollars over the course of a semester. Public schools that need money for textbooks and teachers have a hard time justifying that kind of expenditure on pee cups and debatable effectiveness. In fact, Rushville already has had to cut back on its drug testing because the bills were mounting.

Still, a ruling by the Supreme Court in favor of drug testing will inevitably result in more such programs across the nation. ACLU drug policy lawyer Graham Boyd predicts, "A Supreme Court decision that endorses drug testing will plant the seeds of an idea among school boards that might not otherwise consider it." In Indiana alone, in the month since the Linkes lost their case before the state Supreme Court, drug testing companies such as Indiana Testing, Inc. report that business with high schools has doubled.

Ultimately, drug testing in high schools appears to have little to do with fact, and everything to do with panic. Faced with the threat of drug use, parents and administrators feel helpless. It is not hard to understand why they grasp at the most obvious solution, if only to demonstrate that they are doing something -- anything -- even if there's no proof that it works.

"If we can save even one life, it's worth it," said administrators at Indiana's drug testing schools; but they sidestep discussions of what might be lost in the process. Whatever they feel privately about threats to civil liberties, the school leaders are prepared to publicly defend their programs, regardless of cost or challenges about their efficacy. And they may soon be supported by the highest court in the land.

"It's a pride issue," says Northwestern student Kirton, perceptively. "You can never teach an angry person, and when you get to drug testing and these controversial topics, people get angry and it's no longer about the topic, it's about themselves. And when it's about themselves, they aren't ever willing to admit they are wrong."

This story has been corrected since its first publication.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

Related Topics ------------------------------------------