Last year, when Tongue River High School students Taylor Holiday and Kylee Knobloch were asked to come up with a project for their leadership club, they decided to tackle a real-world problem.
“There was a few kids in our school that seemed to be struggling with drugs a little bit,” says Holiday. “So we thought, ‘what if we could make the change in this school that helped kids get away from issues like that?’”
Their solution? A campaign to start randomly drug testing all students who participate in extracurricular activities—from football and volleyball to student council and chess club.
Their school district, Sheridan County One, is following the girls’ lead. It’s just the latest Wyoming school district to explore mandatory drug testing. About 1 in 5 high schools in the state have these policies—according to data from the Wyoming High School Activities Association—as well as some middle schools. Administrators see testing as a way to keep students away from dangerous substances, but this drug-testing trend is not without controversy.
“It’s just like any other school, anywhere,” says Knobloch, of Tongue River. “We have a problem. We just want to help kids if they need the help. Some students haven’t been able to make the change, because they don’t have a drug testing policy like this.”
As part of their effort, the students have gathered information from other schools that have drug testing policies and surveyed peers within their school district about the prospect of launching one there.
“We got a few surveys back where, um, the students weren’t so excited about it and thought it might be an invasion of privacy,” Holiday says.
Drug testing students who participate in extracurricular activities is contentious, but it’s also constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court said so back in 2002.
Still, that didn’t stop the outrage in Goshen County when the school district there proposed drug testing in 2009.
“It actually divided our communities,” says Jeff McClun, who had three children in school at the time. “There were so many on one side and the other side of the fence.”
McClun was on the side that took the school district to court over the policy. He and a large group of parents felt it was wrong for students to be tested without probable cause. Their case went all the way to the Wyoming Supreme Court in 2011.
“The judge did side with the school district and determined that it should be constitutional,” says McClun. “We parents were very disappointed in that.”
McClun is a former school board member who continues to oppose drug testing students. He says it may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right.
“The people who oppose the policy do not support doing drugs,” says McClun. “What we’re trying to do is having something more to keep kids off drugs, rather than a simple policy that really is very ineffective.”
Goshen County’s drug testing program has been around for about 7 years, and was one of the first in the state.
“I do believe that the drug testing policy in our school has been successful,” says Randy Epler, principal of Southeast High School in Yoder. “I guess how you measure that success is up to debate.”
Last year, the Goshen County School District required more than 600 junior high and high school students to provide urine samples. Eleven tested positive for substances—mostly marijuana. When students test positive, the school does not notify outside authorities—no cops or courts—but it does alert parents and issue some in-school consequences.
“Certainly there’s a suspension from activity participation,” says Epler. “But more importantly, there’s a required component for drug and alcohol counseling.”
Southeast doesn’t test the roughly 20 percent of students who don’t do sports or clubs, because doing so hasn’t passed legal muster.
“Some of the kids who should be drug-tested aren’t, because they aren’t necessarily in an activity,” says Southeast junior Mary Ridenour.
But for the rest, she says the threat of random testing presents at least one clear consequence for drug use.
“Kids think about that,” says Ridenour. “When they come upon the opportunity to use drugs, they think—maybe I shouldn’t do this, because I care about the activities that I’m in.”
But it’s not clear that that thinking has any real impact. Goshen County spends $18,000 a year on the program—about $30 per drug test—and the number of students testing positive here has been steady over the years.
When Goshen County first proposed drug testing, Linda Meyer was the sole school board member to fight it. She says, back then, she was asking the same question over and over again.
“The question was, ‘how do you measure the success of it?’ And they really didn’t have a way,” says Meyer. “It was just something they felt was strong and good and wanted to continue. But factually, I did not see any real measuring.”
Nationally, there’s limited evidence that these programs work as a deterrent at all. That’s according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which released a report last year opposing random drug testing in schools.
“Why aren’t we trying other things? What other things are we trying?,” says Meyer. “What can we do—other than something like collecting urine from our children and testing it? That bothers me deeply.”
Despite Meyer’s concerns, Goshen County’s policy isn’t going away. And more districts are following its lead. After lots of public input, Sheridan School District One plans to launch its policy later this year.
These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.