White House Refocuses on Drugs in Schools

The White House battle against drugs in schools has taken a back seat to other issues. Funding for programs such as Safe and Drug Free Schools has been cut. But the administration is trying to revive drug-abuse prevention efforts.

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The Bush Administration has launched a new effort for mandatory random drug tests in schools. But as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, many schools aren't interested.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

Today, less than half of one percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts tests kids for drugs. Yes, less than half of one percent.

Why? Two reasons, says the nations drug czar, John Walters. Schools are afraid of lawsuits, and many are scared to death of what they're going to find.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): They're afraid they're going to find kids that need treatment. We're also going to find, in some cases, they didn't get the first drug or first drink from their friends; they got it from their father or their mother or their brother.

SANCHEZ: That's why America's war on teenage drug abuse will be won or lost in our schools, says Walters. So testing is a must.

That's his message to educators at gatherings like this government-sponsored drug testing summit in northern Virginia a few days ago.

Mr. WALTERS: Not only is testing an enormous prevention force, but we know that if we find young people who use, we change the face of substance abuse in the United States for generations to come in a durable and lasting way.

SANCHEZ: Proving that with hard data, though, is another matter. For some unexplained reason, the Federal government has never commissioned a single controlled study of random drug testing in schools.

The U.S. Education Department estimates that 600 schools test, mostly athletes and students in activities like drama or band. Kids are picked randomly, like a bingo ball, and usually given a urine test. The results are confidential.

Schools cannot refer students to law enforcement if they test positive, but they are referred for treatment and counseling. Still, without irrefutable evidence that random drug testing reduces teenage drug abuse, and with so few schools doing it, the Bush Administration has had to look elsewhere for good news. Like trend data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which shows that fewer kids are using illegal drugs these days.

Ecstasy, for example, is down 60%, amphetamines 35%. Steroids, meth, even marijuana, the most widely used illegal drug among teens, are all in decline, the government says. Although that's not what you hear among high school students in the tenth largest school system in the country, and one of the wealthiest: Fairfax County, Virginia.

Mr. BAER DRAKE(ph) (High School Student): Kids are drinking and smoking pot. I mean, of course its abundant, and some children choose to do it.

SANCHEZ: Baer Drake is an 18-year-old high school senior who seems to have put a lot of thought into this drug-testing business. A group called Students for a Sensible Drug Policy asked Baer to meet with me at his school, where half the kids polled recently said they've been offered drugs at least once this year.

Leaning against his old Pontiac in a parking lot right off campus, Baer takes a sip from a soft drink can and says a drug test is not going to stop teenagers from experimenting with drugs.

Mr. DRAKE: If they want to try it, they're going to try it. They drug test you, school finds out, you know, rumors start spreading. They don't know if you've done it once or a thousand times.

SANCHEZ: So what do you think we should do here? Is the government wasting its time?

Mr. DRAKE: With the drug testing, I believe so. I think that education is the most important thing.

SANCHEZ: School officials in Fairfax County agree. They say there's just no evidence that random drug testing is a deterrent.

If kids are tested, it's for cause; which means they were caught with illegal drugs or showed up to school under the influence. On average, Fairfax County tests about 15 hundred students every year for cause.

Kris Krane, Executive Director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, says if schools are serious about reducing drug use, they should study the remarkable drop in teen smoking. It's been cut in half in the last 30 years, says Krane.

Mr. KRIS KRANE (Executive Director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy): And we've done that without drug testing a single person in schools for tobacco use. We've done it through reasonable fact-based education about the dangers of tobacco.

SANCHEZ: Doing the same with illegal drugs, though, is a tall order for an administration that's planning to slash $387 million dollars from drug-education programs in schools.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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