Of Men and Mice

Here’s a story from the friendly skies. One day last summer, on a flight from Atlanta to New York, I came across the following three newspaper headlines:

“Teenage Drug Use at an 8-Year Low.”

“Student Privacy Just a Specimen for Profit, Politics.”

“Brains of Mice Enlarged.”

This trio got me to pondering the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June upholding the constitutionality of drug tests as a prerequisite for high school students’ participation in extracurricular activities, even if there is no suspicion of drug use. The relevance of this decision for youth workers is obvious – not just because we work with and care about young people, but because community-based youth programs could become the next frontier of this brand of insanity.

Let’s start with the facts: In 1998, school authorities in Tecumseh, Okla., adopted the Student Activities Drug Testing Policy, requiring that students who engage in extracurricular activities – such as choir, debate and Future Homemakers of America – consent to random drug tests throughout the year. Adding insult to injury, the school system required students to pay for the tests themselves.

Two youths, including plaintiff Lindsay Earls, challenged the policy as an infringement of their Fourth Amendment protection from warrantless searches. A state appellate court agreed with them in a March 2001 ruling.

But in June the U.S. Supreme Court, in Earls v. the Tecumseh Board of Education, ruled that the school authorities were operating within the bounds of the Constitution. That leaves us with a bad legal decision that has great potential for fostering bad social policy.

Left to their own quiet deliberations, most school boards would probably come to the conclusion that – because youth drug abuse rates are down and abundant evidence documents the benefits of young people’s participation in extracurricular activities – they should not enact policies that actually discourage involvement in after-school programs. But a powerful drug-test lobby has developed in recent years, including a trade group known as the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (DATIA).

This 1,200-member organization has found a friend on Capitol Hill in Rep.

John Peterson (R-Pa.). His office issued a press release in January "hailing” the school drug-testing provision in the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which lets school districts use money from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program to test for illegal drug use.

In a keynote speech about mandatory school-based drug testing at this summer’s DATIA conference, Peterson reportedly said (according to a July 19 column in USA Today), “Folks, it’s saleable, but we have to stand up and sell it.”

Youth workers should try to stop this sales force dead in its tracks. As officials debate the merits of random suspicionless drug testing in our schools, youth advocates, including young people themselves, have a wealth of insights to share:

• Participation in extracurricular youth development programs has been shown to reduce young people’s engagement in high-risk behaviors, including use of illegal substances.

• Participation in high-quality prevention programs has also been shown to reduce youthful substance use.

• No credible evidence links drug testing to deterring adolescent drug use.

• According to the National School Boards Association, harsh discipline policies such as “zero tolerance” have been shown to contribute to students’ feelings of alienation from school.

• School boards and city councils should adopt enlightened policies (and budgets) designed to encourage young people’s participation in extracurricular youth development programs, both school-based and community-based.

In other words, there is a strong case for policies that expand young people’s access to youth development and prevention programs, and nearly no case for policies such as those advanced by the school authorities of Tecumseh, Okla.

Now, about that third headline. If the brains of mice can be enlarged by injections of a protein known as beta catenin, maybe we should prescribe a dose for the adult leaders responsible for one of the worst examples of youth policy to come along in recent memory.

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.


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