Our View on school drug tests: Proceed, but protect

By Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted9/23/2011 4:00 AM

It's no secret the suburbs have a drug abuse problem among teens. Young people know how to find drugs, and they continue to get hooked at great cost to themselves, their loved ones and the community. Taking an aggressive step to ease this sickness, officials at Lake Zurich High School have proposed drug testing among certain populations of students. Six times a year, 15 students who participate in extracurricular activities or have a parking permit would be randomly chosen, and a positive test would mean suspension from the activity.

Lake Zurich Unit District 95 is to be commended for acting assertively to take control of a problem that increasingly affects all communities. In the process, though, it also should be certain to include provisions that protect privacy and accommodate parenting rights.


District 95's first steps look promising. At least two public hearings have been held since the idea was floated last year, with another planned Oct. 5. In addition, an upcoming parent survey, the district's second, will provide the school board with valuable data. So far, parents have expressed fear their children's rights against unreasonable searches would be jeopardized and their own responsibility usurped, so clearly these are points the schools must address.

And, privacy is a growing issue even outside the school environment. Think about it. Already, government-sponsored cameras roll at intersections and in neighborhoods. Debates about privacy implications of the Patriot Act continue. In the name of safety, we all are relinquishing a growing portion of our private lives to public view. Students, to be sure, have not yet achieved full adulthood and so merit a stricter level of monitoring, but their rights as citizens still must be respected.

To the extent that District 95 aims to deter students from using drugs, research by the Department of Education helps their cause, if only slightly. A 2010 study shows that in schools with testing, 17 percent of students reported using drugs within the previous 30 days, while 22 percent in schools without drug testing reported doing so. However, drug testing had no "spillover effect" on the substance use reported by students not in the testing pool, and it had no effect on students' intentions to use drugs in the future.

A month ago, an 18-year-old Lake Zurich man died of a heroin overdose. Would drug testing have saved his life had it been in place? That's the gamble for Lake Zurich High School and other districts that may be considering similar programs. If it's true that random testing by itself makes little progress toward a drug-free student body, it must be part of a wider approach that also focuses on changing behavior.

Again, District 95 has made important steps in this regard as well. The board already has approved a new assistance program and hired a coordinator who can guide students. If District 95 officials can gain community support, then drug testing could be another tool in the fight against this scourge among youth.