Don Johnston, Clarksville School District superintendent, hasn't seen studies that suggest such tests are effective. In fact, two studies by the University of Michigan suggest that random drug tests do nothing to reduce student drug use.
Studies or no, Johnston says he believes the drug tests work in Clarksville, and that parents, for the most part, support the program.
“I think it gives students another opportunity to say no,” Johnston says.
Bruce Plopper, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, begs to differ. “There are just no studies out there that say this works,” he said. “But schools are spending money on it anyway.”
One drug test can cost anywhere from $14 to $30, and tests that check for steroid use can cost as much as $100.
Plopper, a Conway resident, became a student of the issue after the Conway School District adopted drug testing.
Plopper, who in a 2001 survey found that Arkansas's schools tested for drugs at a rate 13 percent higher than the national average, sued the Conway School District in 2002 and 2003 over the testing on constitutional grounds. The case did not make it to court before the district suspended its student drug-testing program. Plopper says, at best, his efforts “may have been indirectly related to that suspension.”
Conway abandoned drug testing in 2007. Superintendent Greg Murry said it's difficult to tell if dropping the policy has made a difference, but he said the decision by the School Board was the correct one. “The community had the opportunity to speak to the board about it, and the board made what they felt to be the appropriate decision,” Murry says. “I think the community's input did have something to do with the deci-sion. I mean, that's what democracy's all about.”
Arkansas school districts create their own policies on random drug testing, so it's difficult to know exactly how many are testing, how many plan to test or, like Conway, how many have abandoned testing. The practice is opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and one national survey found 83 percent of physicians disagreed with the policy as well.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that random drug testing is constitutional for student athletes and students participating in extra-curricular activities.
Critics oppose random drug testing for a variety of reasons — saying it creates an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion, violates privacy, and fails to fully address the needs of students in trouble.
Cathy Koehler, National Education Association director for the state of Arkansas, says there are better ways to respond to perceived drug problems.
“Mandatory drug and alcohol testing of students, without probable cause, is an unwarranted and unconstitutional invasion of privacy,” Koehler says. “Why would you assume that, let's say, an entire high school football team, is abusing drugs or other supplements? I think that a lot of parents would be offended that you made the assumption that their child was an abuser. And since we can't prove that every one of them is abusing drugs or other supplements, then it's an invasion of their privacy.”
Cases involving drug testing are often based on the student's right to privacy and the school's responsibility to provide a drug-free environ-ment. Where that balance lies depends on state law. Some state constitutions offer greater protections against searches and seizures than does the U.S. Constitution. Richard Peltz, professor at the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law says Arkansas is one of those states, and school districts considering drug testing policies should keep that in mind.
“We don't have a lawsuit to tell us what the Arkansas Supreme Court might think about it. The U.S. Supreme Court found that drug test-ing, as a condition of extra-curricular participation, was permissible at random, without individual suspicion,” Peltz says. “Going beyond that, would be dangerous for a school's policy.”
Legal challenges to drug testing policies are common, and can present problems to small schools forced to fight cases in court.
Holly Dickson, staff attorney with ACLU Arkansas, says that over the last couple of years her office has received several complaints related to student drug testing, some regarding the policy itself, some concerning practice.
“We've had questions about what parents can do to have a more sensible drug policy at their child's school,” Dickson says. “And basically the answer is to take the scientific research and share it with their school board and ask them to re-evaluate what they're doing.”
The Arkansas School Board Association (ASBA) does not offer clients a model drug policy, as it does with other issues. Kristen Gould, the staff attorney for ASBA, says that a good policy should be community based.
“If schools do have a student drug policy, it should be done reflectively rather than reflexively,” Gould says. “It's a policy that you need to think through carefully and one that you probably need to do a lot of ground-work with your community on in order to build support.”