Schools Increase Drug Testing—Is This the Right Path?

College students on a staircase.

Schools are increasing their drug-testing programs. When I saw that headline mentioned in a recent article in U.S. News, it caught my eye. School drug testing is undoubtedly an effort to combat the growing drug epidemic. It’s an effort to protect our kids from drug use. It’s an effort with good intentions behind it. But is it the right effort? Should we consider other potential avenues of protecting kids from drug experimentation? Are there more effective, less error-prone measures for preventing drug use in our young adult and adolescent population?

The Story

U.S News provided excellent reporting on the relatively new development in school drug testing. The U.S. News article reported that nearly 38 percent of school districts had some form of drug-testing policies in place in 2016. In 2006, only about 25 percent of school districts had policies and programs on drug testing. And since 2016, the trend to test for drug use in schools has been a growing one.

According to the article, many schools have adopted mandatory drug testing for students who want to participate in extracurricular activities. These could include participation in sports teams, student clubs, even school dances.

But here’s the problem. Since 2006, a declining number of schools are employing other crucial drug-prevention techniques and strategies. There is something very wrong with that picture. On the one hand, schools are increasing drug testing (and there is some argument for whether or not that is even a good idea). On the other hand, some schools are reducing educational and preventive measures to teach kids about the harmful nature of drugs.

Critics of school drug testing are not hard to find. Some say that the research that does exist on the efficacy of school drug testing is not nearly stable enough to justify mandatory testing in schools. Others object to testing on the basis that drug education and other preventative efforts were and are far more effective at reducing teen drug use. Others say that instituting drug testing in schools then takes away funding from other, necessary educational priorities. Still others say that drug testing in schools invades student privacy.

Bringing Out the Underlying Details Connected to Drug Testing in Schools

Introducing drug testing into public schools suddenly brings about a few concerning points, one of which is this: What happens when a student fails a drug test? Will the steps taken be standardized across school districts? Or will each school district decide the fate of students who fail drug tests in those districts?

“If they (students) test positive, they are suspended from extracurricular activities. In both Fort Scott and Bushland, results are disclosed only to students, parents, and certain school staff members, such as the student’s principal.”
Suspended student is depressed.

The U.S. News article reported on two school districts in Texas which seem to have sensible approaches for when students do fail a drug test. Quoting the article: “If they (students) test positive, they are suspended from extracurricular activities. In both Fort Scott and Bushland, results are disclosed only to students, parents, and certain school staff members, such as the students principal. The information does not appear on academic records and isnt shared beyond school walls.”

But what about other school districts? What about school districts which might decide to take a more punitive route?

That then begs another question. In a way, testing students for drug use is a form of inspection before the fact. That essentially means that students are automatically assumed to be doing something wrong. They are therefore being subjected to inspection via testing before any evidence or concrete suggestions exist that indicate they have done something wrong.

Wouldn’t it be better if schools did as schools should do, i.e., educate students about the harmful nature of drugs and drug use?

Why Educating Young People on the Harms of Drug Use Is So Important

There is this miraculous phenomenon which occurs when students are thoroughly educated and informed on the harms and dangers of drug use. Quoting a thorough study which analyzed different methods of delivering such education: “Life skills training program through lecture-based and video clip-based educational methods was considerably effective in changing the high school students’ attitude toward drug abuse and addiction.”

Lecture in a classroom.

Another study, this one published by the RAND Corporation back in 2002, was also able to prove that school-based prevention and education programs were effective. Quoting that study: “School-based drug prevention is therefore a cost-effective tool for improving public health and for making incremental progress in the effort to manage mature drug epidemics, such as the U.S. cocaine epidemic. Furthermore, the study does not rule out the possibility that drug prevention programs may have an even greater impact on newly emerging epidemics than they have on the cocaine epidemic.”

Yet another study, this one performed on Australian schools, also found that educational tools were effective in reducing drug-use statistics among school-age youth. Quoting the Victoria State Government Education and Training website: “Effective drug education is important because young people are faced with many influences to use both licit and illicit drugs. Education can play a counterbalancing role in shaping a normative culture of safety, moderation, and informed decision making.”

There is also a factor of common sense here. We don’t need well-formulated studies and research papers to prove that educational efforts are the correct method for reducing young adult drug-use trends (though the studies do help). It merely makes sense that, when young people learn about the harmful nature of drugs, the threat of overdose, the reality of addiction, the crisis of chemical dependency, the threat of incarceration, the risk of the spread of diseases, and so on, they really start to get why they would not want to experiment with such substances.

We all need to do our best to ensure that the younger generation is sufficiently educated and informed on the harmful nature of drug and alcohol use. We need to make sure that they get this information at a young age, ideally before they have any experience with drugs and alcohol. And as a closing note, let’s also point out that schools are not the only places where kids should be taught this. Parents should be teaching their kids about the harmful nature of drugs as well.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICCAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.