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Study Finds Random Drug Testing Doesn’t Deter High School Students’ Substance Use

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Random drug testing in schools does not reduce students’ substance use, a national survey of high school students concludes. The study found students who attend schools where they feel treated with respect are less likely to start smoking cigarettes or marijuana.

Students who attend schools where they feel respected, who have already started smoking, escalate their smoking at a slower rate than their peers at schools with less positive atmospheres, the study also found.

Neither random drug testing nor a positive school climate was associated with a reduction in alcohol use, according to researcher Dan Romer, PhD, Director of the Adolescent Communication Institute of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He and lead author Dr. Sharon Sznitman, currently at the School of Public Health at Haifa University in Israel, spoke about the findings at the recent American Sociological Association annual meeting.

The researchers interviewed 361 high school students twice, one year apart. They asked them about their use of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. If they had not started using these substances at the beginning of the year, the researchers asked whether they had started to do so a year later. If they already had started using any of these substances, the students were asked whether they increased their use.

Dan Romer, PhD

Dan Romer, PhD

Students were asked whether their school had a random drug testing program and what the social climate was in their school. “We measured this by whether students think the rules in their school are fairly administered, whether they feel they have a say in how the rules are developed and if they feel they are treated with respect,” Romer said.

He found students attending school with positive school climates were 15 percent less likely to start smoking cigarettes, and 20 percent less likely to start using marijuana, compared with students at schools without positive climates. Students at schools with positive climates who already smoked had a much smaller increase in the number of cigarettes they smoked, compared with those in schools with less positive climates.

In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court held that random drug tests of student athletes do not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. In 2002, the Court decided that random drug tests of students involved in extracurricular activities do not violate the Fourth Amendment.

“That means that kids who aren’t involved in sports or extracurricular activities are the ones who aren’t getting tested, and they tend to be the ones who are more likely to abuse substances,” Romer noted.

He advises parents to ask school administrators how they are fostering a positive climate for students. Several organizations have resources for schools that want to promote such an atmosphere, including the National School Climate Center and Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. “If I were a parent whose child’s school was starting a random drug testing program, I’d question it—there are other ways to help students avoid the use of drugs,” he says.

He is concerned by the finding that even a positive school climate does not seem to deter high school students from drinking. “It’s become normative to drink. Alcohol is easily available and it’s hard to detect.” Romer points to advertising as a major reason why so many teens drink. “One thing we don’t focus on enough is the amount of advertising for beer at sporting events, and alcohol ads on late-night TV and in magazines that teens read,” he said.

His survey showed a big jump in drinking when teens turn 18. “They think they’re adults, and in many ways they are,” Romer observes. “We have to hope that schools with positive climates are at least encouraging their students to be careful in how they use alcohol.”

In 2011, Romer published a study that concluded drug tests in high school had no influence on male students, and only a slight impact on females—but only in some schools. The nationwide study of 943 students found 27 percent said their schools had a drug testing policy. For girls, drug testing only had an effect if they attended schools that had a positive school climate.

10 Responses to this article

  1. Beanca / August 18, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Random Drug Testing seems like a good and bad idea, Good because it has the potential to stop kids from coming to school intoxicated or high, but if you have an 18 year old who’s old enough to sign up for the military then their gonna feel it’s their right to have a drink. Bad too because children don’t have to come to school intoxicated they could very well do it before school or after and if their parents are working then it become harder to deter.

  2. alfreda / August 13, 2014 at 11:34 am

    I think this is an invasion of their privacy. If you drop the age limit for drinkng, there would be less binge drinking and less death. when you start telling an 18 year old what to do that is when they become opposition. you will have to sit down and talk with them. if they are 18 year old and can fight for their country, they should be able to have a drink.

  3. Avatar of widad abdul karim
    widad abdul karim / February 6, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    students should be educated on the dangers of using drugs

  4. Avatar of Mark Zuck
    Mark Zuck / October 2, 2013 at 1:28 am

    You are an IDIOT if you think it is ok for a school or anyone that isn’t you for that matter, to randomly drug test your child or children. This is a massive invasion of a person to prove their innocence and be free from unreasonable searches. Something that is directly violates the core of the constitution. You wouldn’t let a officer randomly search your home or car, (or would you) but you would let the draw bodily fluids from your children. “If you have nothing to hide”, is what you say to mindless twits to get them to do what you want them to do. Its not about hiding, its about being a person and having the right to be free from the invasion of your personal and private self. Are you that much of a lame parent that you can’t notice your child’s habits ? Who will be randomly checking the school staff members for drug use ? This is not the same as an employer this is a school of children. We parents as tax payers pay them not the other way around. My children will NOT be participating in any public school programs. To you lame parents so willing to give away your child’s rights and teach them to do so as well, you have been very well programmed and eventually end up as all cattle does.

  5. Norman Hoffmann, Ph.D. / September 7, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    This is not the first study to find that drug testing students in extracurricular activities does not deter use. In fact such a policy makes no logical sense on a number of levels. What has been documented is that nicotine via tobacco use is the real gateway drug. Students who start smoking by middle school are more likely to go on to alcohol and other drugs. In several studies, tobacco use precedes alcohol and other drug use.

  6. Avatar of Jan R.
    Jan R. / September 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Random drug testing may not necessarily be a prevention strategy but it surely is a way to provide early intervention to those who test positive. This may prevent progression of problematic behavior and addiction.

  7. meltee / September 6, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    There are numerous studies of the beneficial effects of positive school climate on elementary school children’s current and future behavior. It is nice to see the effect is also present in high school.
    The sociology of deviance indicates that individuals are less likely to engage in behavior that others disapprove of. But this is true only if they feel a need to secure the approval of those others.
    The fact that school administrators disapprove of drugs is more likely to affect students’ behavior if the students value the administrators’ opinions. Drug tests may communicate drug use is unacceptable, but students may not care if they don’t feel respected by the administrators.

  8. james / September 6, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    The study methods seem shaky at best. Schools with random testing typically only test students participating in extracurricular activities. Why was this not part of their study? Many kids need an excused not to use. Random testing can provide them that excuse. A testing program also conveys the message that using drugs is unacceptable behavior. Please remember, kids are less likely to be involved in a behavior they perceive is unaccepted.

  9. Natalie Costa / September 6, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Education must start in middle school. It’s pointless running after a teen with a drug test when they have already been experimenting with alcohol and marijuana. They already believe they are doing no harm. Parents/middle schoolers need a comprehensive in your face education program about the real dangers, how it affects every child (no denial) everyone must pay attention. It could very well happen to their child.

  10. Avatar of Sharon
    Sharon / October 23, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Mark, I agree with the right to privacy, but what about the children who have parents that do not care about what their child may be doing? do you not think this may help save them from future addiction problems?

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