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Positive school climate, not drug testing helps deter use

A new study suggests that drug testing in high schools does little to prevent drug use.
A new study suggests that drug testing in high schools does little to prevent drug use.
Marco Di Lauro_Getty Images

School drug testing does not keep high schoolers from smoking marijuana, but creating a “positive school climate” appears to help, according to a new study published in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

A Jan. 13 news release reports that one in five U.S. high schools have drug testing, a policy that is controversial with parents and some educators because there is little evidence that it is effective.

University of Pennsylvania researchers followed 361 students for a year and found that those in schools with drug testing polcies were no less likely to try marijuana, cigarettes or alcohol than students in schools that didn’t have a drug testing policy.

“Even though drug testing sounds good, based on the science, it’s not working,” lead study author Daniel Romer, PhD, director of Health Communication at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia, said in the news release.

Romer added that a contributing factor is that school drug testing is often aimed at students participating in extracurricular activities such as sports and clubs, a population that is less at risk for developing drug problems.

“So as a prevention effort, school drug testing is kind of wrong-headed,” he said.

What the University of Pennsylvania researchers did find was that if a school climate was perceived as positive – if the kids said there were clear rules and students and teachers treated each other with respect – students were about 20 percent less likely to try marijuana and 15 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes.

“We found climate is really what governed how much change there was in their use of drugs, and drug testing is totally unrelated,” Romer told U.S. News & World Report.

“It’s not good, not bad, it just doesn’t seem to be related at all to how much kids started to use drugs or continued to use drugs,” added Romer.

However, a positive school climate did not seem to have any effect on student drinking. In follow-up interviews, two-thirds of the students in the study admitted to trying alcohol regardless of school drug testing policies or their school climate.

“The whole culture uses alcohol,” said Romer in the news release. “And you’re fighting something that has widespread marketing behind it. It’s a real problem and right now we’re not doing enough to address it.”

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