VIEWPOINT Mandatory Drug Testing Makes Users, Schools Suffer By Patrick Watcher

Judging from its arguments last Tuesday, the Supreme Court will soon extend mandatory drug testing authority to schools. In upholding the Oklahoma school district of Pottawatomie’s rule – that students wishing to participate in extracurricular activities must first pass a drug test – the Court relied on predictable and accepted legal arguments: a school should take steps to remain drug-free. Students voluntarily agree to drug tests when they sign up for an activity. And of course Antonin Scalia’s circular claim that minors require a certain level of paternalism since they don’t enjoy full constitutional rights. While many of these assumptions are tenuous in their own right, they stem from the belief that deterring drug use is worth a minor invasion of privacy – a belief that probably checks out with most Americans.

I doubt that most people realize drug tests can be quite intrusive (ridiculous disclosure of personal nutritional and medical information, high risk of false positives) or that the implications are frightening. (There’s no reason a local school district should monitor the private activities – legal or illegal – of its students.) Yet the privacy issue is tangential to what should be the center of debate: the effectiveness of mandatory testing and the desirability of excluding drug users from afterschool programs. Unfortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union and company have challenged the testing policy on Fourth Amendment grounds, with little attention to the consequences for schools and drug users. The failure of both the Court and the concerned parties to recognize what’s really at stake could severely undermine our public responsibility toward education and drug prevention and treatment.

The assertion that mandatory testing stops drug use is dubious. William Rehnquist attributed Pottawatomie’s low number of positive tests to the existence of a testing policy, and he even scolded David Souter for suggesting it was simply a correlative statistic. The chief justice’s logic might work for a relatively drug-free district like Pottawatomie, where the few recreational users that aspire to the chess club might curtail their use (or more likely, find some way to beat the test). Others might choose pot over pottery, but either way, nothing has really changed. However, if mandatory testing is introduced to districts with more endemic drug problems, the effects could be disastrous. any underprivileged students would be excluded from activities, stigmatized and despite Rehnquist’s optimism, probably continue to use drugs. Testing requirements could transform extracurricular activities from welcoming and rewarding experiences to sources of resentment and further destructive behavior. While troubled school districts are unlikely ever to accept such a rigid and hopeless policy, others, who lie somewhere between Pottawatomie and our nightmare districts might be tempted to adopt mandatory testing as a solution to their drug problems.

Testing, whether it deters drug use or not, would assure that drug users remain alienated and helpless. Often, extracurricular activities are a healthy diversion for students to channel their frustrations from family, poverty or school itself. A child who excels in the jazz band will find more inspiration in his music than in his remedial reading class. He might even redirect some of this positive energy back into his studies, which is the goal of any school – to be a nexus of learning, creativity and enthusiasm. But if a student struggling with a drug problem is denied this source, be it jazz or crochet, the student and the school lose out. Since drug-addled students would still be forced to attend classes, schools’ drug problems would persist. And even though activities might be drug-free, classtime would be a virtual prison for drug users, whose unwanted presence is mandatory. That a public school would deny opportunities to a drug user is only one sign of our hyper-obsession with the War on Drugs. Public officials continually vilify drug users and promise “get tough” policies, while the president incorrectly blames users for aiding terrorists. This puritanical crusade against a subjective pleasure destroys lives, tramples rights and only intensifies the nation’s drug problem. But in my mind – call me naive – drug hysteria, despite all the interdiction, mandatory minimums and illegal searches and seizures, has been accompanied by a commitment to treatment and prevention, albeit a half-hearted one.

Shutting schools’ doors to drug users would be a giant setback for the more compassionate public health component of the drug war. Too bad both sides of Pottawatomie case are so myopic. As long as courts, advocates and policymakers couch the drug testing issue in terms of privacy (especially when the Fourth Amendment is facing more pressing threats) and the unfounded theory of deterrence, the real victims – drug users and their schools – will continue to suffer.

Patrick Wachter is a 2001 graduate of the College.

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