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“Lockdown High”: The War on Drugs Goes to School

(Image: Verso Books)

Chris Steffner strode to the front of the packed audience, shunning the podium to deliver her sermon Oprah-style with a wireless mic transmitting the Word loud and clear. The pert, petite blonde is principal of Colts Neck High School in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and a true believer in the national movement to randomly drug-test students in order to save them from themselves and the perceived epidemic of youth drug and alcohol abuse. Steffner was among nine presenters at this, the second Regional Drug Testing Summit of 2007, organized by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and held at the Hilton Hotel near Newark International Airport on February 27.

I’m not here to tell you, ‘You should drug-test your kids.’ That’s your decision,” she declared. “It’s not about how bad your drug problem is. It’s about how much you’re willing to do to keep your students off drugs.” With a colorful PowerPoint presentation projected behind her, Steffner regaled the assembly with tales of what she was willing to do as principal at Hackettstown High School, her prior post, where she initiated a random drug-testing program in 2004 for athletes, club members, and students driving to and parking at school. There was the story of drunken students at the senior prom, whose vomiting tipped Steffner off to their condition: “I did what every red-blooded principal will do. I bend over and smell that vomit. If I do nothing, I tell those kids it’s okay.” Steffner also was willing to publicly humiliate students and told of calling an inebriated prom attendee’s parents to cart him off before his peers. “They don’t get that they can be out of control, they don’t get that they can die,” Steffner intoned. “That’s the beauty of being a kid.”

In the first year of drug testing at Hackettstown, Steffner claimed, 70 students from a pool of 1,000 were subjected to urinalysis, yielding one positive—for what drug she did not say. In the 2005–2006 school year, 740 of 1,000 eligible students were tested, producing no positives. A logical conclusion might be that the tests were a waste of time and money. But Steffner said the results were proof that testing was deterring drug use. She nodded to another presenter, “the guru, Lisa Brady,” who as vice principal of Hunterdon Central in 1997 helped pioneer random drug testing in that New Jersey high school. One by one, Steffner deflected the arguments of student-drug-testing opponents, dismissing civil rights and privacy concerns, costliness, and the basic lack of scientifically based evidence that drug testing actually deters use among youth with the self-righteousness of a religious crusader.

Student drug testing become a crusade, proclaimed by former president George W. Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address and fired up by John P. Walters, director of the ONDCP, otherwise known as the drug czar, from 2001 to 2008. True, Ronald Reagan initi- ated the War on Drugs and the Drug-Free Schools Act of 1986, which funded drug and alcohol use prevention. And during Bill Clinton’s presidency scattered local efforts were made to bring drug tests to schools. But Bush’s administration, led by Walters, made student testing a strategic front in the national drug war by aggressively using legal advocacy, budgetary largesse, and publicity campaigns such as the Regional Drug Testing Summits. The Bush White House’s embrace of student drug testing was the evolution of a youth-focused antidrug policy immortalized by Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s. Proponents say that drug testing gives students an excuse to “just say no” in the face of supposedly irresistible peer pressure to smoke pot, pop pills, or drink alcohol.

What invigorated Walters and the student-drug-testing movement was a crucial 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Oklahoma case known as Earls. The ruling, which gave a green light to wider student testing, has emboldened such antidrug missionaries as the Drug Free America Foundation, created by the conservative Republican activists Melvin and Betty Sembler, and its allies, like the Drug Free Schools Coalition, whose founder, the New Jersey attorney David Evans, regularly spoke at ONDCP summits. Drug testing youth is also a priority among a network of influential former government insiders and their corporate interests. For them, schools are the next logical and profitable market, now that drug testing in the military and workplace are well established. Drug testing and its related services are a billion-dollar industry and growing.

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Aligned against the apostles of testing stand the American Civil Liberties Union, which has challenged student drug testing in school districts around the country, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a nonprofit opposing drug-war policies, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and such weighty professional associations as the National Education Association, the American Public Health Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). DPA and SSDP were dogged in challenging Walters and the pro-testing movement, sending organizers to the regional summits to engage participants and offer a critical view of test- ing. In the face of moralistic arguments and flawed research on the efficacy of student testing to deter drug use, opponents offer a reasoned, nonpunitive approach to drug-use prevention through education. “What worries me is there is an anger, a nastiness at the bottom of this that says, ‘These are bad kids,’” says John R. Knight, MD, founder/director of Harvard’s Center on Adolescent Substance Abuse Research and co-author of the AAP’s 2007 policy statement opposing student drug testing. “I don’t think that approach is useful.”

Like all components of the Lockdown High model of school safety and discipline, student drug testing is predicated on hype and distortion. In this case, it’s the view that illegal drug use is epidemic among young people. The reality is different and more nuanced. Drug and alcohol use and abuse are harmful and have harmful consequences for thou- sands of people—young and adult— but among young people they are affected by myriad factors, including societal attitudes. Their substance use has been on a downward trend for years. It’s a fact that even Walters, the drug czar, had to acknowledge each year that the latest study had reinforced the decrease. In a letter to summit participants, for example, Walters stated: “Recent surveys indicate that there has been a 23 percent reduction in youth drug use over the last five years—that’s 840,000 fewer young people using drugs today than in 2001.”

Monitoring the Future, the preeminent national survey of students, offers widely respected data on young people’s drug and alcohol use by polling eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders. The MTF survey has been conducted since 1975 by the University of Michigan with funding from the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse. It has tracked the peaks and troughs of substance use, which seem to reflect varying attitudes and perceptions of the risks associated with and the acceptability of drug and alcohol use in the wider culture. In 2006, MTF showed that the use of marijuana, the most common illegal drug, decreased for the fifth straight year, most sharply among the older students. But in 2009, the survey detected a slight uptick in pot use, a change that the principal researcher, Lloyd D. Johnston, attributed in part to teens seeing less risk in using marijuana and also disapproving of it less, too. Those youthful attitudes would be consonant with the growing acceptance of marijuana use—especially for medical reasons—around the country. As Johnston said in 2009, “Changes in these beliefs and attitudes are often very influ- ential in driving changes in use.”

The MTF tracks use of other illegal drugs, including LSD, methamphetamines, cocaine, opiates, and steroids, and over the last several years has shown steady annual declines in their use among the students surveyed. For 2009, use of Ecstasy, LSD, and cocaine also declined, while other substance use stayed constant at levels well below the peaks of the mid-1990s, the survey states. Alcohol use has also been in a long-term decline over the years for all ages, according to the MTF, which measures how many kids have used alcohol at least once in the past thirty days. Use among eighth graders was 40 percent lower than in peak years, among tenth graders 25 percent lower, and among twelfth graders had one sixth the prevalence.

Legal prescription drugs were also added to the MTF survey because, as Johnston noted, they were becoming a bigger part of the whole country’s “drug problem.” In 2002, the survey added OxyContin to its questionnaire, and in recent years, another narcotic, Vicodin, was added, as were Ritalin and Adderall, both used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. For 2009, the survey found student use of most of these drugs had not increased despite several years of previous increase, and several drugs, including Ritalin, showed decreased use. But OxyContin use was still higher among all age groups than in 2002, when it was added to the MTF survey. The prevalence rate—how many students had used it at least once in the last twelve months—was very low, even if too high. For eighth graders, it was 2 percent; and for tenth and twelfth graders, 5 percent.

Another national survey, by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), echoes the downward trend. Called the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, it found a decline in current alcohol use among high schoolers from 51 percent in 1991 to 43 percent in 2005; local surveys conducted as part of this survey revealed similar declines. In New York City, for example, marijuana use declined by 6 percent and alcohol consumption by 7 percent between 2001 and 2005. Heroin use, though, increased threefold during that period, from .6 percent to 1.8 percent of students having tried it at least once.

For antidrug warriors and the student-drug-testing pushers among them, downward trends require calibrated spinning in two directions. First, they claim that decreased use is owed to the effectiveness of the drug czar’s efforts, including student testing and antidrug media campaigns from ONDCP. But because no level of drug use—especially marijuana—would be considered acceptable under their zero tolerance ideology, they argue that even more testing and antidrug efforts are needed. “In some ways, the White House is exasperated by their inability to reach anything approaching abstinence. The numbers fluctuate but they don’t trend all the way down to zero,” says Marsha Rosenbaum, a drug-abuse prevention educator and National Institute on Drug Abuse scholar. “Some of us believe there is no possibility of abstinence in a culture saturated with legal drugs, let alone illegal ones.”

Decreases in youth drug and alcohol use have myriad causes, including social and cultural attitudes. But government antidrug advertising deserves no credit. If anything, the advertising campaigns directed by ONDCP have actually increased the likelihood of young people smoking marijuana. That was one of the findings of a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office to Congress on the effectiveness of the youth antidrug media campaign conducted by ONDCP. From 1999 to 2004, ONDCP spent $1.2 billion to persuading youth to say no to drugs, especially marijuana. The result was that there were “no significant favorable effects of campaign exposure on marijuana initiation among non-drug-using youth or cessation and declining use among prior marijuana users,” according to an independent evaluation the GAO cited. It noted the consistency of declining trends in drug use nationally, but couldn’t credit them to ONDCP’s efforts. On the contrary, it did find “significant unfavorable effects”: the more young people were exposed to the anti-pot ads, the more likely they were to think smoking pot was normal. For girls aged twelve and a half to thirteen, the ads actu- ally prompted higher rates of initiation into pot use.3 Not surprisingly, Walters’s office disagreed with the GAO’s findings that more than a billion dollars had, essentially, gone up in smoke.

One issue that is rarely addressed in discussing youth drug use and the testing movement is race and class. Testing’s most fervent and visible adherents are white, middle or upper middle class, and suburban. This might seem counterintuitive to anyone who automatically thinks of drugs as a problem of so-called inner city youth, who typically are Latino and black. But it is no coincidence that Lisa Brady, Chris Steffner, and David Evans all hail from mostly white, affluent New Jersey communi- ties. They are fairly representative of the student-drug-testing crusade in general. In Tecumseh, Oklahoma, or Hunterdon, New Jersey, white middle-class communities see in student drug testing salvation from a perceived evil infecting their youth that would make schools—not parents—responsible for policing children. Although the demographic angle seems obvious and certainly invites exploration, the testing propo- nents seem not to have even thought about it. At the Newark summit, for example, an attendee asked what percentage of schools doing testing were urban compared with suburban. Brady said there was no such information, but suggested that in urban areas “Parental concern could be an issue.” The Education Department and ONDCP staff at the forum had no response. Surprisingly, attendance at the Regional Drug Testing Summits was dominated by white educators.

Rates of drug and alcohol abuse also are somewhat greater among white youth, according to the CDC’s national data, which is one reason that communities such as Hunterdon have embraced drug testing in schools. Binge drinking and hallucinogen, methamphetamine, and cocaine use were higher for white youth than for black youth, and comparable to that of Latino youth. John Knight, of Harvard’s Center on Adolescent Substance Abuse Research, says the class divide is clear among patients he treats. “I speculate that drug-use rates are higher among middle-class kids who are white and suburban,” Knight says. “What we know works is parents who talk to their kids frequently about drug use, and I worry that in wealthier, suburban families, they don’t want to worry about taking the time to talk to their kids. These are the same parents who want their kids sent to boot camps.” A survey of drug testing in schools by the same Michigan researchers who conduct Monitoring the Future found that schools with majority black or Latino students are “slightly less likely to test” than majority white schools. Given the disproportionate incarceration rates of blacks and Latinos for drug-related crimes, it makes sense that they would perceive drug test- ing in school as an extension of the criminal justice system—a shortcut on the school-to-prison track for their children. That may be one reason major urban school districts, such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston do not drug-test their students.

Since Barack Obama entered the White House, the student drug testing movement has lost its main public champion, John Walters. The new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is Gil Kerlikowske, former police chief in Seattle, Washington, whose orientation runs more toward prevention than criminalization. The budget for student drug testing has not disappeared but it has been slashed dramatically. For fiscal year 2010, the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free schools had a budget of $7.3 million for random drug testing—$10 million less than for 2007. And that repre- sented continuation grants to schools already funded under the Bush administration to do testing—not new awards.

Still, even if the student-drug-testing crusaders no longer have a bully pulpit in the White House, their chief power and momentum has always been at the local level, in school districts and communities, where the most potent policies of student discipline and school security are being forged.

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