Schools Test Students for Cigarettes
As the new school year gets underway, kids across the country have a new test to worry about passing their nicotine screening.
Nearly a quarter of a million girls will start smoking in the coming year.High schools and middle schools in several states have added nicotine to the list of substances that students are tested for in order to participate in extracurricular activities.
Administrators say the testing helps protect students' health and keeps them from even trying cigarettes, but critics contend schools are going too far, and violating childrenâ€™s rights.
The current debate is centered in Hoover, Ala., where Ron Swann used to be known as athletic director at Hoover High School.
"They call me the drug czar now," he said. The school recently became the first in the state to include mandatory, random testing for nicotine and other drugs among its athletes.
"It became evident that our community wanted us to include tobacco in the testing," Swann said, explaining that many parents and school administrators felt nicotine, the chief active principle in tobacco, paved the way to the use of other drugs. Now, about 1,600 kids in seventh grade through high school will be randomly sampled with urine tests starting this month.
The measure is meant to prevent smoking, not punish those who have picked up the habit, he said. For the first nicotine offense, the studentâ€™s parents are called. The next time, they must attend a tobacco education class. For the third strike, theyâ€™re suspended from 25 percent of their groupâ€™s games or activities.
"Weâ€™re not trying to catch kids or get kids in trouble," he said. "The reason is to stop (smoking) or to not do it if theyâ€™re tempted."
That philosophy has been applied in other schools as well.
"Itâ€™s effective, and I think our kids need this as a reason not to do it," said James Peck, superintendent of Shelbyville Central Schools in Indiana. The district instituted the "whiz quiz" three years ago at the high school and last year at its middle school, where nicotine is included.
About one third of U.S. teens continue to smoke.
But not everyone is pleased with the increasing trend of testing students for nicotine. David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, said testing for other drugs has not proven to be effective, and he doubts it will work for smoking. But heâ€™s also concerned about the studentsâ€™ privacy, especially if they show no signs of a drug habit.
"To what lengths do we go to (monitor) our young people and force them to conform to our ideals?" he said. "And shouldnâ€™t a lot of this be left at the discretion of the parents? Shouldnâ€™t we be strengthening parental responsibilities rather than usurping them?"
Not all health professionals are sold, either.
"People are walking around with this false sense of security that their kid is not using, and they may be using drugs," said Dr. Peter Rogers of the division of adolescent medicine at Childrenâ€™s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Rogers who serves on the committee on substance abuse at the American Academy of Pediatrics, which opposes testing said the tests are not reliable. For example, certain cold medicines can show up as a positive result for amphetamines, while others drugs, like ecstasy, do not show up. And he reports that patients who have recovered from addiction say school testing would not have stopped their drug use.
"Thereâ€™s so many different reasons why kids use, and most kids are going to experiment with drugs and alcohol. That doesnâ€™t necessarily mean itâ€™s right, but theyâ€™re going to do it," he said. "Something weâ€™ve struggled with for a long time is what is a deterrent. I think a close family is the number one deterrent. I think the best thing we can do for our kids is have a good marriage."
The practice has met with legal challenges as well, and so far the results have been split. In May, a federal appeals court upheld the right of a Mishawaka, Ind., school district to randomly test students who participate in extracurricular activities. Attorneys had argued that the testing violated studentsâ€™ 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
But the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Northwestern School Corporation did not have the right to randomly test students. The case is currently under appeal, and Peck said the Shelbyville schools and others are joining the fight to allow testing.
Regardless of the outcome, it seems that testing is here to stay.
"Itâ€™s unfortunate that society has gone in a way that makes organizations feel that they have to do this," said Terry Nance, athletic director at the London City Schools in Ohio. "Most of the comments weâ€™ve had have been very supportive."