School as drug tester: One parent's view


Kara, who lives in Baltimore County, did not recognize right away that her 16-year-old son was using drugs. He seemed moody. He often was lethargic. He began doing poorly in school. But to Kara, those changes in behavior seemed symptomatic of adolescence rather than drug abuse.

"Drugs didn't even cross my mind until he started stealing from the house," she said yesterday.

"First there would be little things -- he would get a Walkman for Christmas and a week later it would be gone," she said. "Then he started stealing from his brothers and sisters. Then he started going into my purse. And the lies! It got to be so that we could never believe a word he said.

"That's when people suggested that he could be using something," Kara said.

It turns out her son was using cocaine, spending up to $100 a week to support his habit.

This occurred several years ago. Today, the son has a steady job and has been drug-free for nearly two years. He has earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. He plans to get married.

But the struggle against drug addiction was not easy -- not for her son and not for Kara and the rest of her family.

"On the one hand, it was as if he was sick with some disease -- not just sick, willfully sick," she said. "We would get him into a treatment program. It would look like he was making progress.

"Then he would slide back and we'd have to start all over again," she said. "It took a tremendous emotional toll on our entire family."

I spoke with her after Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows schools to conduct random drug testing for student athletes. Ruling in a case that originated in Vernonia, Oregon, the court held that schools serve "in loco parentis" for the children entrusted in their care, and therefore must exercise "a degree of supervision and control that could not be exercised over free adults."

"School years are the time when the physical, psychological and addictive effects of drugs are most severe," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority. "The necessity for the State to act is magnified by the fact that this evil is being visited not just upon individuals at large but upon children for whom it has undertaken a special responsibility of care and direction."

This strikes me as a common-sense description of a school's role, particularly in these days and times when educators seem unwilling to accept any such "special responsibility of care and direction." And if school officials feel they need random testing to fulfill this function, I am inclined to grant it to them.

But first, I asked Kara -- a woman who has endured the hell of having a child on drugs -- if she felt random tests would have helped her son. He was not a varsity athlete, but many legal experts believe Monday's ruling eventually could be applied to all students.

She thought for a long time. "It might have a deterrent effect in terms of those who are just experimenting," she answered. "But from my experience, when a child makes up his mind to abuse drugs he becomes horribly deceptive and very, very clever. I really think expanding the school's powers will just force kids further underground."

Then I asked her if her son's problem would have been uncovered earlier if she had used random testing in her own household. After all, shouldn't caring parents be able to try a tool that schools are allowed to use?

"Actually, counselors say we recognized my son's problems relatively early, although I can't help but feel we were behind the curve," she said. "The bottom line is that the signs [of a drug problem] are there. No matter how clever the kids are, in the end they cannot hide it. That's why I wonder whether school systems want random testing to help children and their parents or to help police build a criminal case."

I guess it comes down to common sense, which is often the case on questions of civil liberties: If school officials truly cared about the children placed in their charge, they probably wouldn't need an intrusive tool such as random testing. And if officials don't care about children, they almost certainly should not be trusted with so much power.

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