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.
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.