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Study: School Drug Testing Not Acting as Deterrent for Males

Supporters of student drug-testing programs often claim that they maintain value as a deterrent, even if the programs uncover few (or no) positive results. (In this instance, we're talking about drugs such as alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana, not steroids.)

Thanks to a study recently published online in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, those drug-testing supporters may need to develop a new party line.

Male students reported no less recent use of alcohol, marijuana, or cigarettes, regardless of whether their schools conducted drug testing, according to the study. It examined 943 high school students (48 percent female) ranging from 14 to 19 years of age, through telephone interviews conducted in 2007 and 2008. Twenty-seven percent of the students reported that their schools, at least at that time, conducted drug testing.

"This study sends a cautionary note to the estimated 20% or more of high schools that have joined the drug-testing bandwagon," said Dan Romer, one of the study's four co-authors, in a press releaseRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader. "We find little evidence that this approach to minimizing teen drug use is having the deterrent effect its proponents claim."

Instead of drug testing, a school's culture and social climate appear to have a much larger impact on the prevalence of drug usage in the student body.

In schools where students and adults respect each other and where the rules of the school are clearly enforced, drug testing did appear to deter female students from using drugs. Male students were also slightly less likely to use drugs at schools with positive environments, according to the study.

However, there's one very large caveat: At schools with negative climates that also drug test students, girls may be using more drugs than at schools with similar climates that don't drug test. Therefore, drug testing may actually be counterproductive in schools with negative climates, the authors suggest.

"Schools should consider improving their climates before embarking on drug testing," Romer said. "Students in schools with good climates are far more likely to respond well to messages discouraging the use of drugs than students in schools with poor climates."

In the press release, Romer noted that the U.S. Department of Education's office of safe and drug-free schools, which was eliminated earlier this year, formerly promoted the use of drug testing in schools for extracurricular activities or if the tests were voluntary. The Supreme Court has also twice ruled in favor of drug testing students involved in extracurricular activities, in the 1995 Acton v. Vernonia School District 47J case and the 2002 Board of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cty. v. Earls ruling.

Romer's study isn't the first to find little correlation between drug testing and student drug usage. A 2003 studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader out of the University of Michigan found that "drug testing in schools may not provide a panacea for reducing student drug use that some (including some on the Supreme Court) had hoped."

The UMich study surveyed 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, and found no association between school drug testing and the prevalence or frequency of student drug use. The authors of that study suggested that "the strongest predictor of student drug use is students' attitudes toward drug use and perceptions of peer use." (Ringing a "positive school culture" bell, anyone?)

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