Testing the yellow waters

While many right-thinking folks are focusing all their energies on getting rid of the scurrilous Patriot Act, our civil liberties are being seriously eroded on yet another front with hardly a whimper of protest.

In one of several offensive propositions made during his State of the Union address in January, President Bush called for more student drug-testing, even though, he observed, drug use has declined 11 percent among high-school students over the past two years. He proposed spending “an additional” $23 million of the nation’s massive red-ink budget, which is in fact being borrowed from these very kids, for school systems “that want to use drug-testing to save children’s lives.” (That’s on top of several million already being spent on pilot “pee-in-the-cup” programs.)

“The aim here is not to punish children,” Bush read from his script, “but to send them this message: We love you and we don’t want to lose you.” (After all, someone has to keep paying taxes to meet the interest payments on the exploding national debt.)

Anyway, the political automatons listening in person at the Capital then applauded wildly – after all, who isn’t against drug abuse and kids dying? – and for the most part the pundits of the print and electronic press haven’t bothered to comment on his plan in the weeks since.

Also cheering wildly at their homes, no doubt, were the CEOs and stockholders of the growing number of highly profitable drug-testing companies, which have been diligently greasing the palms of Beltway legislators for years through their lobbying group. Of course, the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association promotes drug-testing of not just kids, but ultimately of every warm body in America.

DATIA, which claims over 1,000 corporate members, is very forthright in this goal, listing in its mission statement these two priorities:

“1. To represent the drug- and alcohol-testing industry in Washington D.C. on key legislative and regulatory issues.

“2. To expand the workplace drug and alcohol testing market.”

And in a recent PR piece concerning a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision about the legality of testing school kids, DATIA vowed “to remain aggressive on this issue until the voices of our members are heard by key legislators, and student drug testing is a reality!” (And that would be for ALL students, of course!)

Apparently, the propaganda generated by the desk soldiers of the War on Drugs have been effective in this one aspect, at least – cowing most parents into allowing their kids to have their privacy invaded in this disgusting way. Only a handful have objected, along with some more enlightened students who are occasionally forced to contribute a few ounces of urine while a monitor presses his or her ear against the stall wall, allegedly for the common good. (“Come on, Ashley, I can’t hear you!”)

The scary thing is that our ultra-conservative U.S. Supreme Court has ruled drug-testing for students who want to engage in competitive sports or any other school-related activity is constitutional at the federal level. (Isn’t it ironic that the word “conservative,” which once stood steadfastly for less government interference in our lives and the worth and dignity of individuals, has come to represent a philosophy of trampling people’s privacy rights in favor of an authoritarian, big-brother style of maintaining civil order?)

But there is hope. In at least eight states lawsuits have been filed that challenge the legality of testing students, and in one it has already been declared unconstitutional.

Even beyond the issue of privacy, drug-testing just doesn’t make sense. (Other than to make DATIA members rich.)

As Bush pointed out, drug use by high-school students has declined significantly of late, and it is obviously not because of testing, although that is what he claimed. Ninety five percent of public schools do not test their students, according to separate studies conducted by the University of Michigan and the Journal of School Health, and there is no difference between the rate of drug use in these schools and those that squander precious education dollars on such foolishness.

At any rate, alcohol is the chief drug problem of students, just as it is for the larger society.

Certainly kids shouldn’t be coming to classes drunk, stoned, or high. But generally those who are substance-abusers give ample indication of that. Randomly testing students who have shown no sign of illegal behavior teaches them only that, because of their age, they can be treated as if they have no rights at all – like the lowly lackeys at giant corporations who are similarly drug-tested for no good reason. (Some right here in Cortez, in fact.)

Fortunately, not quite everyone agrees with this wholesale examination of people’s bodily fluids. Only last December the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that testing students who apply for a parking permit or want to participate in extra-curricular activities in the Delaware Valley School District violates the privacy protections of that state’s constitution. In the majority opinion, Justice Ronald Castille sarcastically observed:

“The theory apparently is that, even in the absence of any suspicion of drug or alcohol abuse, it is appropriate to single these students out and say, in effect: ‘Choose one – your constitutional right to privacy or the chess club.’ ”

Maybe some day parents will get to know their kids well enough so a test won’t be necessary to tell if they’re having a drug problem. Whatever, it should not be the role of our public schools to determine anything beyond kids’ competency in reading, writing and ’rithmetic. And teachers shouldn’t be made to stand in an adjacent restroom stall and listen for the tinkle of urine going into a cup. Just possibly, their time would be better spent teaching.

Furthermore, the students who need an education most should be learning something more than how to cheat on a drug test.

If nothing else, this folly offers one more reason to replace a failed president who himself didn’t learn much about self-control during his formative years. Actually, George the Tweeker might have benefited from drug-testing during his cocaine days, but even without it he seems to have scraped by.

From David Long, March 2004.