Some tests are not for schools

Yesterday, an editorial letter I submitted, Don’t Test for Drugs at School, was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I wanted to share the reasons why, as a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent health, I feel that random drug testing of teenagers in schools is unfounded.

In my letter, I reference the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement that also disagrees with this practice. The reasons outlined by the AAP are as follows: there is little evidence that school-based testing works to decrease alcohol and drug use; testing is complex and easy for savvy teens to defeat; the tests can mistake legal substances such as over-the-counter medications for illicit drugs; resources for help are not always provided by the schools; and it is an invasion of the student’s privacy.

It is true that teenagers, by their nature, are risk takers. By the end of high school, two thirds of today’s teens have engaged in sexual activity, more than half have tried smoking, more than three quarters have tried alcohol, and just under half have experimented with illicit drugs, namely marijuana. I am not condoning their behaviors.  Knowing that many teens are going to take risks, it is our job to help them to make the best decisions possible.

Strategically, we know that when teenagers feel connected and can talk with an adult (any adult), they are less likely to engage in risk taking behaviors. This has been shown to be true time and time again. Instead of spending money on drug testing, we should find ways to involve more kids in extracurricular activities. As parents, it’s important that we are talking to our teens. Parents need to be willing to talk about difficult topics in an open and non-judgemental manner. The discussions should include being clear about what our expectations are for them, and how we are going to handle the situation if they make a mistake.

As an adolescent physician, part of my role is to screen teens for risk-taking behaviors. I do this by spending at least part of my visit talking with them one-on-one. However, before I address risky behaviors, we first discuss their strengths. Identification of assets that teens have in their lives helps them to reject harmful behaviors.

Teenagers are our next generation of adults.  We need to help them put their best foot forward by building upon their strengths. It is important that we do not undermine their trust and privacy by spending money and time on activities like drug testing.

–Sarah Lerand, MD, Adolescent Health and Medicine

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