It’s estimated that about 20% of US schools drug test children. A new study says this tactic is wholly ineffective, but there is a way to drive down drug use that is relatively inexpensive and easily implemented: creating a positive environment for kids.
The research, published in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, involved 361 students and of them about a third reported that their schools had drug testing policies for athletes and high school clubs. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia followed all of the students over a year. What they found was that those who reported having drug testing policies at school were no less likely to use illicit substances like marijuana, cigarettes or alcohol.
While the research is undeniably small and relies on self-reported data, in the context of wider research it seems to support what many in the education field have been saying all along: drug testing kids as a deterrent doesn’t work.
The researchers found that in a best case scenario, the policies might encourage kids to forego the substances their schools are testing for — but it doesn’t mean they won’t use things like alcohol or other substances. Also, the researchers pointed out that kids who are involved in school clubs and sports — the kids that are usually targeted for drug testing — are statistically less likely to be the ones who frequently dabble in using marijuana, alcohol and the like, and so these policies aren’t only ineffective but are also being targeted at the wrong kids.
Interestingly, the researchers did find one overriding factor that appears to reduce the chances of kids dabbling with drugs. It sounds almost hokey, but a positive school climate that create a respectful environment and honors the emerging adulthood of kids appear to work at least better than intrusive drug testing policies.
During the initial interviews with students, they were asked to categorize their school climate. A positive climate was classified based on five factors that had been drawn from previous research. They included whether students had respect for one another, whether teachers and students had mutual respect, whether students thought that their teachers handled problems appropriately, and whether the school’s rules were clearly defined.
Students who said that, yes, the school climate could be classed as “positive” were on average 20% less likely to try marijuana. They were also 15% less likely to use cigarettes. What’s more, while a drug testing policy didn’t affect a change in use in boys, it actually appeared to make girls more likely to use those substances.
Daniel Romer, associate director of the university’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and a lead researcher on this study, categorizes these findings: ”Even though drug testing sounds good, based on the science, it’s not working.”
Now, the researchers recognize that this study hinges on self-reporting by students and so is limited. For instance, schools might not have had any particular code of conduct in place that created said positive environment and that could have come about organically. The study also relies on student perceptions, and other kids from the same school might have classed the environment as less than respectful. Nevertheless, the results are being treated as significant because they support wider research that has found prohibitions and restrictions do not always act as effective deterrents against substance abuse.
However, there was one surprising finding. While a positive climate did lower marijuana and cigarette use, it didn’t prevent alcohol use. About two thirds of students on their second interview said they had tried alcohol irrespective of the school climate or drug policies. Why could this be?
“Alcohol seems to be a problem all on its own,” Romer is quoted as saying. “Alcohol apparently is very normative in high school kids, to the extent that they’re in a peer group that’s likely to drink. They’re going to do it, they’re going to feel like it’s not a big deal.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, alcohol is the most commonly used drug among young people in the United States and is responsible for more than 4,300 annual deaths among underage youth. Binge drinking is a particular problem, with 22% of teenagers reporting that they binge drink. This can cause a fall in grades, poor school attendance and a range of health problems including alcohol poisoning. One key way to prevent alcohol abuse, studies say, is to raise taxes on alcohol and, more importantly, to reduce the amount of alcohol advertising aimed at school children.
The researchers do not make recommendations for how to tackle the problem in schools, but they do believe that more needs to be done if we want to make sure kids aren’t falling victim to alcohol abuse. While a positive school climate may not be enough, this research certainly serves to suggest that creating a climate of mutual respect in schools could be a key to finding new ways to deal with this problem.
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