Put to the test
ONCE a year or so, Roy Tialavea is summoned from his classes at Oceanside High School to report to the athletic director's office bathroom. He receives a urine specimen cup and heads for a stall.

The 17-year-old is unruffled. Random drug testing has been going on for two years at the school. He's used to it. "I don't use drugs so I don't have to worry about getting caught," he says.

His mother, Robyn, thinks her son steers clear of drugs and alcohol. But, she says, no parent can know for sure what a teenager is up to.

"If he doesn't like testing, I really don't care," she says. "I think it's a wonderful tool. It creates the fear that they could be tested."

Call it the 2007 version of "just say no."

Concerned with high rates of adolescent substance abuse, hundreds of middle schools and high schools nationwide have quietly begun testing some or all students for drugs — to the dismay of some health and addiction experts.

Although less than 5% of all high schools have such programs, testing is now common in schools throughout Texas, Florida, Kentucky and parts of California. In Southern California, many private high schools have implemented drug testing, as have several public school districts in Orange County and San Diego. Nationwide, as many as 1,000 schools have established programs, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The number of schools administering drug tests is expected to grow. Federal funding for school drug testing increased 400% between 2003 and 2006. The Bush administration spent $8.6 million on such programs last year and has requested $17.9 million for fiscal year 2008.

"This is the best new idea to reduce the onset of drug use," says Dr. Robert L. DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health, a nonprofit drug policy organization that has studied school testing. "About half of high school seniors have used an illicit drug by the time they graduate and about one-quarter are regular users by the time they graduate. Those figures are worrisome."

School-based drug testing gives kids a reason to say no, say DuPont and other proponents. The tests are meant to identify students who are using and guide them into counseling or treatment programs before they develop addictions.

But health officials, by and large, oppose school-based drug testing. NAADAC, the Assn. for Addiction Professionals, has released a statement critical of such programs. And in March, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautioned against random school-based drug testing until more research is completed. The two groups are among those who say testing is not reliable enough, violates trust between adults and teens and is not set up to deal effectively with students who have positive results.

Though adults debate testing's merits, students at some high schools hand over urine specimen cups as comfortably as they turn in late library books.

"Kids pretty much know who does drugs and who doesn't," says Alex Podobas, a senior at San Clemente High School, which has had voluntary testing for several years. "But no one says, 'Oh, you're a pothead' when you get called out for testing."

Screening kids for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and other illegal drugs at school is an offshoot of two decades of experience with workplace and military drug testing, experts say. Testing methods have improved during that time to reduce the number of false test results while providing greater privacy and confidentiality, says DuPont.

And though substance abuse among teens has dropped in the last decade, parents and school administrators still consider the rates unacceptably high. Just over 20% of eighth-graders and about half of all high school seniors say they have taken an illicit drug, according to 2006 data from Monitoring the Future, the University of Michigan's nationwide annual survey. About 30% of high school seniors say they have been drunk in the last month.

Little faith is put in traditional classroom drug education programs to further drive down substance abuse rates, says Jennifer Kern of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based organization that focuses on a harm-reduction approach to drug education.

"People are overwhelmed and are looking for new approaches," she says. "A lot of the concern comes from a good place. We haven't done a good job preventing substance abuse."

School drug testing got its biggest boost in 2002 when the Supreme Court ruled that schools may conduct random drug tests among students who wish to participate in school-sponsored extracurricular activities, such as sports, marching band or debate team.

"Fifteen years ago, school drug testing was too controversial," says John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "People thought the test was going to throw kids out of school or give them a criminal record. The Supreme Court decision was an enormously positive step."