Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Drug testing alone unlikely to be cure-all

The Blaine County School Board should consider implementing mandatory drug testing for students who participate in extracurricular activities.

Consideration will generate a healthy and, we hope, thoughtful community debate about the prevalence and effects of alcohol and drug use among our teens and perhaps some positive action—even if the board doesn't choose to implement testing.

Surely, with 66 percent of Wood River High School students reporting last May that they had used alcohol or drugs within the past 30 days, it's worth talking about.

Nationwide, abuse of alcohol and drugs is a serious problem that costs society billions of dollars every year in lost productivity and lost lives. Intervention through education can give students effective tools with which to evaluate their own behaviors and the costs of abuse to themselves, their families and their communities.

The School District will need more than the Drug Coalition's survey and its call to action to formulate effective programs. It will need to drill down into the details of the survey. It may also need surveys of parents as well because school programs need parental support in order to succeed. It will need to discuss testing relative to other concerns, including the roles of government and families.

The school board should not only gather public comments; it should assemble research on the costs and benefits of testing before it decides what to do.

The U.S. Department of Education conducted one of the more recent studies of drug testing at a sample of 36 high schools. Released in July 2010, the study showed that when testing took place, fewer students in school activities reported using drugs (16.5 percent) compared to students in schools without testing (21.9 percent). The study's findings also showed that testing didn't discourage students from participating in extracurricular activities.

But there was bad news, too. Unfortunately, the results didn't spill over into the untested populations of students who were not involved in activities. Also, testing had no effect on students' reported intentions to use drugs in the future.

Thus, testing is unlikely to be a cure-all. Influencing teen behaviors will require other methods as well including engaging troubled students in rehabilitation programs and finding ways to pay for them.

Testing or no testing, teens in the Wood River Valley need useful tools and information to come to grips with alcohol and drugs. It's not easy—even for adults—to reconcile the contradictions of a place where outdoor sports are revered, but alcohol and drugs are readily available.

Detection is key, but that's where the real work begins.

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