Trust between teenagers and adults is essential if students are to make optimal use of the educational and social opportunities before them. That’s one reason I am vehemently opposed to Random Student Drug Testing (RSDT) and zero-tolerance policies, both of which erode the confidence required for young people to meaningfully engage with the adults who can most help them.
The impulse to take decisive action to keep our children safe is understandable. But the decision this week by the Zionsville School District in Indiana to approve RSDT promotes a stigmatized view of people who use drugs, without any ultimate benefit to the people it ostensibly protects. This is not the type of education we need.
The Zionsville policy will apply to any students who engage in extra-curricular activities or park on school property. Any who test positive will—regardless of their frequency of use or how their broader lives are progressing—be required to complete a drug counseling program or be excluded from the very same activities that are shown to prevent not only problematic drug use, but also dropping out of high school, delinquent behavior, teen pregnancy and teen-on-teen violence.
Indiana, where around half of all schools now have RSDT, is simply following the path of the 18 percent of schools nationally that already have it. Proponents cite the 2002 Supreme Court ruling (BOE v. Earls) that upheld the constitutionality of RSDT in schools. My read of that ruling, however, is that it’s just for students involved in “competitive extra-curricular activities”—longhand for sports. The initial target was steroid use in athletes. But it’s estimated that up to 40 percent of school districts with RSDT selectively target other groups of students, and in many cases test the entire school.
The process of urine testing is humiliating for young people. The money spent on the drug tests (Zionsville’s will cost $36 each) is money that can’t be spent on education. Positive test results are rare. But when they happen, the consequences for at-risk youth (particularly of color) can be devastating—including suspension from valuable activities; suspension or expulsion from educational institutions; and even removal from their families and communities due to involvement with the criminal justice system.
You only have to recall the Riverside County, CA high school sting operation of 2012 for an example of how zero-tolerance can run amok. RSDT policies are one of the main contributors to the devastating “school -to-prison-pipeline” —a racially biased phenomenon that damages countless young lives, with many collateral costs for communities.
Even minor violations, such as testing positive for marijuana, which remains detectable for weeks after use, can result in serious consequences. We have to ask ourselves what’s doing more harm in these cases: the drug use, or the sanctions?
As a dad, I know that no parent wants his or her teenager to use drugs, less still for their life to be ruined by problematic drug use. I always urge young people, first and foremost, to steer clear of tobacco, alcohol and other substances. But as a lifelong youth advocate and educator, it has become apparent to me that there is no alternative to a reality-based approach to drug education and prevention—one grounded in science-informed, truthful information.
The reality is that over half of high-school students will try psychoactive drugs before they graduate. The large majority of them will do so without disaster—but they still deserve all the protection we can give them.
So instead of shaming them, “scaring them straight,” or continually presenting the specter of life-altering consequences, we need to implement forward-thinking strategies that emphasize knowledge and safety. We need to say, “If you do use drugs, here are some things that you should know to stay safer.”
Because after all, what do we really care about here? If our child is as safe as possible, meeting their responsibilities and taking opportunities to learn and grow, should we really fixate on experimental drug use to the exclusion of all else?
Talking to our children about drugs is indeed tricky. But when we do it, we must not resort to deploying cynical tropes fueled by ignorance, misinformation and fear—ones that merely reflect society’s mistrust, discrimination and racial prejudice.
One reason to resist doing this is that drug-related stigma can be a real obstacle to a young person reaching out for help.
RSDT and zero-tolerance teach our children to lie. These strategies push kids (and their risky behaviors) underground, where they are exposed to heightened dangers. Rather than marijuana, the real “gateway” to riskier behavior with drugs is the distancing of young people from the adults who care about them.
We know what doesn’t work. But there is still much to do to develop a comprehensive program that does. For example, a wider array of specific, evidence-based interventions is necessary to address the needs of youths who don’t neatly fit into categories, and those who are dealing with trauma, gender and identity issues, sexual issues, who are LGBTQ, have family problems, or face poverty and racism.
Drug prevention—better framed as the prevention of drug-related problems—should be integrated into a wider social and health policy framework to address environmental influences and provide opportunities for social and life development. At Cre8tive YouTH*ink for instance, we combine a peer-to-peer, “each one, teach one” approach with elements of developmental psychology, attachment theory, social justice youth development, community service and contemporary art to foster the positive and conscious development of our young members.
In this way, we help otherwise alienated and hard-to-reach youth to cultivate a real sense of civic and personal awareness. Through these experiences, our young members increasingly become more conscious and involved citizens—empowered to participate more fully in their own lives and ready to assume leadership roles within their communities.
Effective prevention approaches range from cognitive training to Social Influence models, from youth-led approaches to School Climate Change. These are all reasonable frameworks that offer an assumption, explanation or a theory as to the root causes of problematic drug use and what strategies will have a positive effect on our children. Drug education, however is rarely based on what works, but instead, on stakeholder agendas.
Zionsville School District’s decision, like the policies in many other schools around the country, is a backwards step for which kids and communities will pay.
Instead of attempting to shame or scare children into abstinence at all costs, we need to do everything to ensure their safety and prevent problematic drug use. RSDT is not the way.
Jerry Otero, MA (aka Mista Oh) is the founder and chief troublemaker at cre8tivetyouthink.org. Trained as a psychologist, he has served as the youth policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance, assistant director of helpline and family services at the Partnership for Drugfree Kids and supervisor of NYC public high school drug education programs.