Mandatory–Random Student Drug Testing

Program Goals

Mandatory–Random Student Drug Testing (MRSDT) programs are designed to supplement existing school-based prevention interventions and have two primary goals: 1) deter students from substance use and 2) identify students with substance use problems and refer them to appropriate counseling or treatment services. Under MRSDT, students and their parents sign consent forms, thereby agreeing to the students’ random drug testing as a condition of participation in athletics and other school-sponsored extracurricular activities. During the 2004–05 school year, 14 percent of U.S. public school districts conducted random drug testing (James–Burdumy et al. 2012).

Program Theory

Despite a steady decline over the last decade, the prevalence of adolescent substance use remains a cause for concern. National estimates suggest that 50 percent of students report having ever used illicit drugs, and substance use is found to be a leading cause of health problems in adolescence and adulthood (Anderson and Smith 2005; Johnston et al. 2008). Therefore, it remains important for schools to explore approaches to reducing adolescent substance use.

One approach is MRSDT programs. The theoretical framework of MRSDT predicts that the programs could reduce substance use in three ways: by deterring substance use, by detecting substance use, and by having spillover effects on students who aren’t directly subjected to drug testing. MRSDT is expected to have deterrent effects if students are aware of the possibility of drug testing and the possible outcomes that could result from a positive test. Deterrent effects are more likely to occur when students are directly subjected to testing and for the specific substances covered by the drug testing policy. However, changes in substance use behavior could carry over during times when students are not required to submit to drug testing and to substances that do not directly fall under the testing policy.

In addition, students who do test positive for substance use can be referred by school faculty to appropriate treatment or counseling services. Finally, MRSDT could also have an effect on the substance use of students who are not subject to drug testing, as they observe and are influenced by the behavior of their peers who are randomly tested.

Target Population

Generally, only students who participate in school-sponsored athletics or extracurricular activities are subject to mandatory–random drug testing. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of random drug testing without suspicion for students who choose to participate in school-sponsored activities. However, the Supreme Court has not ruled on a case involving random drug testing of all students in a single school (James–Burdumy et al. 2010).

Program Components

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) has operated a grant program to support MRSDT programs in schools since 2003. To receive grant funding, school districts must document other school-based prevention strategies that are already in place to prevent substance use because MRSDT is meant to supplement and not replace those efforts. The OSDFS grant program provides funding but leaves numerous implementation decisions to the discretion of the individual grantees. However, all districts are required to follow a basic set of testing procedures, including the following:

  • School districts must administer tests to a minimum of 50 percent of eligible students.
  • Schools must test for a minimum of five substances (marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, methamphetamines, and opiates).
  • Students who test positive should be referred to counseling or treatment services.
  • Positive test results are subject to review and verification by a certified Medical Review Officer.
  • School districts must establish procedures to maintain the confidentiality of test results.

Within those requirements, school districts can establish which extracurricular activities are covered by the drug testing policy, the frequency of testing of and the proportion of students who will be eligible for testing during each testing event, any additional substances that may be tested for, and the period of the school year when students may be subjected to testing.

For example, school districts may choose to randomly drug-test only those students who participate in sports such as football, soccer, wrestling, baseball, and basketball. But students in school-sponsored clubs and other activities such as drama, band, and choir may also be eligible for testing. School districts may also decide to drug-test students only during the period of the school year when they are participating in school sports or clubs, or students may be subject to drug testing for the entire school year. In addition, schools may decide to test for additional substances beyond the five required by the grant program.

It is also important for schools to make students aware of the MRSDT policies. Increasing student awareness could be done through various methods, such as announcements at athletic practices, messages delivered through the school public address system, letters or emails to parents and students, or media releases (including newspaper, television, or radio).

Intervention ID

13 to 18

No Effects

Study 1

Although James–Burdumy and colleagues (2010) found a significant impact of Mandatory–Random Student Drug Testing (MRSDT) on students’ self-reported use of substances covered by their districts’ MRSDT policy, there were no other significant impacts found. Overall, the MRSDT program implemented at the seven grantee school districts had no effects on student- or school-level outcomes.

Substance Use

MRSDT was found to have had a statistically significant impact on one measure of student-reported substance use. Treatment group students were significantly less likely than students in the control group to report any past-30-day use of substances covered by their districts’ MRSDT policy (16.5 percent versus 21.9 percent). However, there were no significant differences between the treatment and control groups on students’ self-reported use of any substance (32.7 percent versus 38.5 percent) and of any substance except alcohol and tobacco (10.2 percent versus 12.7 percent) in the past 30 days.

In addition, there were no statistically significant differences in the number of treatment and control students who reported using any substance (50 percent versus 55 percent), any substance except alcohol and tobacco (16.8 percent versus 19.3 percent), and any substance tested by the district’s MRSDT program (26.9 percent versus 32.2 percent) in the last 6 months.

Because the school districts were allowed to implement the MRSDT program differently, exploratory analyses were also conducted to examine the relationship between program impacts and implementation characteristics. However, there was no statistically significant association among the frequency of testing, the number of drug tests, and student awareness of MRSDT. Regardless of how schools implemented the program, there was no significant impact on students’ substance use.

Intentions to Use Substances

MRSDT was also found to have no impact on students’ intentions to use substances within the next year. There were no significant differences between the treatment and control groups in the percentage of students who reported that they “probably will” or “definitely will” use any substance (33.6 percent versus 32.8 percent) and any substance except alcohol and tobacco (12.2 percent versus 11.9 percent) within the next year.

Spillover Effects

MRSDT had no statistically significant spillover effects on the substance use reported by students not participating in covered activities. For nonparticipants, there were no significant differences between the treatment and control schools on any measures of substance use in the past 30 days or the past 6 months.

Other Outcomes

MRSDT had no statistically significant impact on any other student- or school-level outcomes, including students’ perceived consequences of substance use, the proportion of students who participated in covered activities, students’ connection to school, or the number of disciplinary incidents reported by schools.

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