Natalie Cassell just finished fifth grade at Susquenita Middle School in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, located in the Harrisburg metropolitan area. In the fall, Natalie decided to join the Family and Consumer Science Club. As required, Natalie’s parents signed the permission slip allowing her to participate.
By June, 10-year-old Natalie had been randomly tested for drugs three times.
The Susquenita School District is one of several public school districts around the country that require random drug testing for student participation in extracurricular activities. Originally started as a way to combat drug use among high school athletes, in the past decade more districts have expanded the testing to include non-athletic activities. Susquenita is unique in that they test children as young as Natalie.
Natalie’s test came back negative all three times.
Leslie May is a fellow seventh grade student at Susquenita Middle School. She, too, was tested in the fifth grade, as well as sixth grade, and three times during her seventh grade year. In the fall, when Leslie began eighth grade, she was eligible to participate, once again, in the National Honor Society. This time when she brought home her permission slip, her parents refused to consent to the drug testing.
After five negative drug tests, the refusal to be tested again prevented the straight-A student from participating in the National Honor Society.
Susquenita Middle School has grades fifth through eighth and requires parents to consent to the testing. A computer randomly chooses students to be tested. The more activities a student participates in, the chances increase for a student to be chosen more than once. Both full and partial tests are conducted which check for a variety of substances, including marijuana, cocaine and opiates. Students are notified at the time of selection and taken to the testing site by school officials. Parents are notified and can join their child at the site – but must remain in the waiting room at the time of testing.
Leslie’s parents are fed up. They find the tests embarrassing and don’t feel their 14-year-old daughter should have to be subjected to it. “We were so tired of this happening over and over again, so we said ‘what can we do to make it stop?’ We took her out of NJHS because of it,” said Leslie’s mother Melinda. “It’s sad that this is what we had to resort to. It’s ridiculous.”
Kristin Cassell, Natalie’s mother agrees. “I don’t think it’s necessary for fifth and sixth grades. I told the superintendent, ‘if you see signs, red glassy eyes, a stupor, then I could see testing,’” she said. “It’s too much. (My daughter) is 10-years-old.”
Unfortunately, other than appealing to the district to change their policy, there is little the parents can do to stop it as it’s all perfectly legal. The Supreme Court has even ruled it constitutional.
The Supreme Court ruled in a 1995 case that a school district’s interest in preventing drug use among student athletes outweighed the students’ Fourth Amendment rights. While opponents argue that it infringes on the students’ rights to privacy, the majority argued that public school students, having been placed in the temporary care of the school district, can make choices as de facto parents in regards to their safety. As public school students, therefore, they have less expectation of privacy. Student athletes, which Veronia School District 47J v Acton pertained to, have even less expectation of privacy since they voluntarily participate in activities that already require additional regulation.
In 2002, the same year the Pennsylvania district began their program, SCOTUS expanded it to include all extracurricular activities since these activities are privileges and schools’ continued interest in combatting drug use among students.
During the Bush administration, the Department of Education made drug testing grants available for grades 6-12. The administration was a supporter of drug testing and the grants allowed for testing of those students enrolling school activities as outlined by the Supreme Court’s rulings. By the time the last of those grants was dispersed in 2011, it is estimated that 14 percent of schools did random drug testing on some level, up from 5 percent at the time of the 2000 Supreme Court ruling.
Many school districts believe that requiring the testing helps deter drug use. A 2007 study, however, disputes this claim, saying that there was no difference in drug use among student athletes in schools with random testing than those without. Even if there is some justification for testing of students participating in things like football, there seems to be less justification to do so for clubs like scrapbooking or the National Honor Society.
Not to mention that it’s an expensive proposition.
Each test costs the school $45 to administer. Another Pennsylvania school district spends $50,000 per year to test their students. In five years, only three students in grades 7-12 have tested positive, with no students testing positive in the last year. That breaks down to more than $16,000 per positive test.
It’s no surprise that drug testing is a multi-billion dollar a year industry.
As schools are undergoing increased pressures due to budget cuts, many are questioning the efficacy of the drug testing. Some schools have chosen to stop the testing as it impeded their ability to maintain their athletic programs. The parents of Leslie and Natalie also feel that the testing is unnecessary and do more harm than good. Leslie’s parents believe that what it really is doing is deterring good students from participating in healthy, educational activities in order to avoid the intrusion into their privacy.
As for their complaints, the Susquenita School District superintendent said he was not interested in a change in policy.