Jennifer Horvath

Jennifer Horvath

We are writing to respond to the Casper Star-Tribune’s editorial "Drug testing students is worth exploring" (March 6).

We agree with the editorial board’s statement that, “This is a critical time for these young people. We should do what we can to help them learn to make healthy decisions that will shape how they live the rest of their lives.” We disagree, however, that violating students’ privacy and dignity through suspicionless drug testing is the way to teach students to make healthy decisions.

Studies have shown, time and again, that drug testing is ineffective at deterring alcohol and drug use among young people. Testing may drive away from extracurricular activities two categories of students --  both sober students and those who are inclined to drink alcohol or use drugs.

First, testing can discourage teetotaling students from attending extracurricular activities because they do not wish to be subjected to a presumption of guilt until they prove themselves innocent. Drug testing undermines the bonds of trust between students and teachers, and when teachers act as police, it erodes the likelihood that students will turn to teachers or administrators for guidance and support. Testing sends a message to students that they cannot be trusted until they prove otherwise, which leaves them feeling ashamed and resentful.

Second, students who use alcohol or drugs are likely to stay away from extracurricular activities in order to avoid testing. Involvement in extracurricular and after-school activities can help students refrain from engaging in alcohol and drug use. Educating students about the risks of alcohol and drug use requires trust and an environment where students feel comfortable asking questions and seeking advice. By implementing testing, school districts establish an adversarial situation between students and teachers, and reduce the likelihood that students will turn to teachers or school administrators for help.

Programs that emphasize education, conversation, counseling, extracurricular activities, and building trust between students and adults are effective alternatives to drug testing. School districts should consider expanding after school programs for students at risk of drug or alcohol abuse, rather than discouraging or banning students from attending, or testing them as a condition of participation.

If they are not already available, districts may want to make counselors trained in substance abuse therapy available to students at school, with assurances that privacy and confidentiality will be protected. Students must not be disciplined as a result of seeking guidance. Education and counseling should be based on science and best practices, rather than on threats and fear. Any successful drug and alcohol education program fosters trust and respect among students and teachers. Parents should also be given the opportunity to become involved.

While some may contend that students consent to being tested by virtue of participating in extracurricular activities, this consent can hardly be considered voluntary. Refusal results in exclusion from the school activity, or worse, discipline, further detention, and referral to law enforcement. Consent in the face of such draconian alternatives can hardly be considered voluntary. If a student prefers not to be tested, the only option is to stay away. The editorial board suggests extracurricular activities are a privilege, but school administrators are well aware that participation is an important part of the educational experience.

To be clear, random testing is another way of saying suspicionless testing. Random drug testing is nothing more than an unreasonable fishing expedition, and such searches are anathema to the Fourth Amendment and Wyoming’s constitutional provisions that afford us privacy. A student who has merely attended school and chosen to fully participate in the broad educational experience is required to forfeit privacy.

Students have a genuine and fundamental privacy interest in controlling their own bodily functions and fluids. Existing standards requiring some level of reasonable or individualized suspicion protects students from arbitrary searches, yet gives officials sufficient leeway to conduct their duties and maintain a safe environment.

Suspicionless drug testing teaches the wrong civics lessons to students: They can't be trusted, they are guilty until they prove themselves innocent and they can't expect to have their privacy respected. Random and/or blanket testing teaches young people to simply accede to random and unnecessary surveillance measures and invasions of their privacy. We should instill in students fundamental American -- and Wyoming -- values of the right to privacy and respect for constitutional principles.

Jennifer Horvath is a staff attorney for the ACLU of Wyoming.

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