Acing the Test

More and more high schools are considering drug-testing their student-athletes. Here are the questions to ponder before you enter the field.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.6, October/November 2003,

Rod Sherrill was skeptical. Herrin (Ill.) High School was considering drug-testing students in extra-curricular activities and, as athletic director, he was concerned that the practice would drive student-athletes away from participating.

But when he was placed on a committee to study the idea, Sherrill heard the other side of the argument. A school board member on the committee talked about his day job at a prison where many inmates are convicted drug dealers. This, says Sherrill, gave him a clearer view of what happens when people do get involved with drugs, and why prevention is critical.

Sherrill thus saw two of the main views on the high school drug-testing debate. On the one hand, why do anything that would drive young people away from athletics? On the other hand, if testing high school athletes might help them stay off drugs, why not do it?

Whether suspicionless drug testing of high school athletes is legal seems settled, thanks to two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The first came in 1995, when a majority of justices held that the Vernonia, Ore., testing program was not an unconstitutional search. They ruled that students have fewer rights than adults, and that sports participants have volunteered for diminished expectations of privacy as shown by such things as locker room undress and communal showers.

The second ruling came in 2002, when the court extended the allowability of drug testing to students in other extracurricular activities. The majority decision noted that the program in Tecumseh, Okla. applied only to students who had voluntarily entered into the activities, and that punishment consisted of suspension from those activities.

The bottom line is that schools may require testing. However, this applies only to students who enjoy a special privilege or participate in a voluntary activity. And intrusiveness must be minimized.

Of course, there’s more to the picture than testing. Both those in favor and those opposed to testing agree that the real emphasis in drug-prevention should be on education and awareness. Whether you test or not, most agree that the educational component comes first.

But if that piece is in place, today’s question arises: Should drug-testing be a part of the drug-prevention package? And if so, how? As Sherrill and others have found, it’s a complex question involving conflicting emotions and contradictory research, tricky legal implications, complex economics, group behavior, and chemistry—both scientific and social.

A survey of 861 athletic directors this year by the National Federation of State High School Associations found 13 percent of high schools have a drug-testing program. Of those, 63 percent test student-athletes, and 20 percent test all students. The push to test is on.

In contemplating whether to start a drug-testing program, most athletic directors first want to know if it works. Does testing deter drug use? Unfortunately, systematic assessments of the effect of testing on high school students’ drug use are few in number, they provide conflicting results, and none are conclusive. This leaves administrators pondering other considerations.

Advocates of testing believe, if nothing else, it helps students turn down peer pressure to use drugs. If they can say, “No thanks,” to drugs on a Saturday night because they might be tested Monday and kicked off the team Tuesday, they can better resist peer pressure.

“Taking a student for the collection of a urine specimen to determine drug use is not my favorite thing to do,” says Mike Blackburn, Athletic Director at Northwestern High School in Kokomo, Ind. “But I don’t have a better solution, and I think testing is the best option available to us.”

Also in the pro-testing camp is Lisa Brady, Principal of Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., which conducts random testing of participants in extracurricular activities, including athletics, and students who park on campus. She says drug use went down after the program was begun, then went back up when the program was suspended because of a lawsuit brought by a student who objected to being tested in order to act in a school play. Hunterdon resumed testing after the Oregon decision, which ended the legal challenge.

“It gives the kids a reason to say no when they are in social situations and there’s a lot of peer pressure,” says Brady, who now speaks to other educators on the topic. “It’s certainly a lot easier for a kid to be able to say, ‘No, I can’t. I’m on the football team, and my school has a testing program.’”

Terry Henry, Athletic Director at Seneca Valley High School near Pittsburgh, where student-athletes and students who park on campus are subject to random tests, says a properly designed program is also an important intervention tool for educators. “It gives a coach an opportunity to catch a kid early, possibly get him or her into a good rehabilitation program, and keep him or her from continuing with the use of drugs,” he says.

A drug testing program can also create good will within a community, some administrators believe. Henry says parents of students who neither drive to school nor play sports have asked that their children be placed in the pool subject to unannounced random tests.

Hunterdon Athletic Director Bob Rossi says a parent told him, “‘My son was at a party this weekend. There was alcohol there, drugs were present, and you were the reason he could say no.’”

Recommendations from outside organizations are mixed. The National School Boards Association backs random student testing, while the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes singling out athletes. The National Association of Social Workers says student testing may reduce participation in extracurricular activities, which it says are among the best ways to help avoid drug abuse.

Brady has heard the alienation theory but hasn’t seen it in practice. “I work with schools all over the country,” she says, “and none of the schools I work with has experienced any drop-off in kids participating because they didn’t want to be involved in a testing program. You might have one kid, like our student who refused to sign the form but wanted to be in the play [and later sued over it]. But that’s one kid in all these years who refused to sign the form, and I have 2,700 kids here.”

Cost is often cited as a reason not to conduct drug testing or to stop it. Guymon (Okla.) High School Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Randy Williams says that while the school’s board of education and administration weren’t against drug testing, they preferred to earmark the $15,000-$20,000 yearly cost for a more widespread student-welfare effort. So they hired an intervention officer to work on a variety of issues as well as drug abuse.

“It wasn’t like we were getting rid of a bad program,” says Williams, “and we may go back to drug testing sometime. But we wanted to hire the intervention officer, and we couldn’t justify that and testing. Part of the intervention officer’s job is to combat drug abuse, and we felt the money might be a little more wisely spent that way.”

The Dublin (Ohio) City Schools drug tested a decade ago but stopped the program awaiting the outcome of the Supreme Court’s Vernonia case in early 1995. The district has not resumed testing, opting instead to spend the money on another drug counselor and a program called “Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities,” which takes a broad approach to drug abuse,” according to Dick Caster, Dublin’s Deputy Superintendent.

“But I’ve had impassioned people on both sides of the fence,” Caster says. “I’ve had parents tell me, ‘Look, it’s my responsibility when it comes to drugs and alcohol. I have an obligation as a parent if I suspect my kid is using marijuana or drinking, and I have to take care of it. The schools shouldn’t have to.’ Philosophically, I think we agree with that. We also have the libertarians, who say, ‘It’s unconstitutional. You’re infringing on the students’ rights.’

“Then you have the other side,” Caster continues. “They ask, ‘How can you as a school district not randomly drug test when you know your athletes are using drugs?’”

For many schools, the positives of drug testing outweigh the negatives. And the reality for athletic directors is that the decision will often be made for them—by upper-level administrators, school boards, or trustees. The job, then, becomes how to carry out a testing program.

The first step, say those who’ve been there, is to reach as much of a consensus as possible on what the problem is, how drug testing will help, and at least a general idea what the program will look like. “The first thing that any school needs to do is to put a group together that looks at what their kids are doing in terms of drug and alcohol use,” Brady says. “That group should include survey information from students in the school and anecdotal information from coaches, teachers, and guidance counselors. The people working with the kids should really be meeting to talk about what is going on in their school.

“If schools are considering testing,” Brady continues, “they need to be honest and up-front with the information that they have, so that everyone understands exactly why the school is undertaking it.”

Rossi agrees. “I strongly recommend that some type of committee or forum be established with parents and students represented,” he says. “But also involve your local police department, and any student assistance coordinators and drug counselors in your building. The dialogue should take place before any program is adopted.”

At Seneca Valley, the principal had little problem convincing the school board of a drug problem, Henry says, in part because heroin had been found in some students’ cars parked on campus. Then it was important to convince the community at large.

“We had three or four meetings to try to educate the public on what we were going to do,” says Henry. “And when we first did the testing, some of the school board members came in and got tested, too. Your school community needs to be in consensus that they want to test. And that has to come from the principals and the guidance counselors, down through the athletic department.”

Seneca Valley also sent a letter explaining the program to parents at the end of the school year before it was scheduled to begin its program over the summer. Next, it included a lengthy explanation of the policy in its athletics information packet.

Athletic directors and coaches are on the front lines, as Rossi quickly learned. Many parents called him to complain or question. “When we instituted this program, we had 27 sports and over 57 teams. And I personally met with every booster club and every parent group that wanted to hear it,” Rossi says. “I explained the process and why we were doing all those things. As the athletic director, I took the phone calls from parents and tried to educate them. I was the front guy even though I was only one part of the puzzle.”

Some parents came to watch the testing, although, of course, not the actual specimen giving. “The big learning curve came during the first half of the year,” Rossi adds. “By winter, people knew about it, though they still needed to go through it. Those first three months were quite interesting because there was no soapbox or forum where they could complain or anyone to ask questions of other than me. But any time we had a parent come in and see the process, there was no problem, and all the rumors were quelled.”

One of the first considerations is cost. How much a school can spend on testing largely determines what drugs will be screened for, how often students will be tested, and how many will be subject to testing. Other variables can include whether school personnel or test-lab staffers will collect samples and get them to the lab, what kind of confirmation testing will be done after the initial screening test, and who will provide professional analysis of test results.

Typical screenings test for marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, opiates, and PCP. For a larger price tag, tests can include barbiturates, benzodiazopenes, methadone, methaqualone, and drugs becoming more common among high-school age people, such as Ecstasy, OxyContin, and so-called date-rape drugs. Steroid detection is expensive because it’s not done in economical mass quantities, and thus not often done at the high school level.

Analysis is a key component, because lab results require interpretation. A medical review officer, usually a physician with special training, takes into account the specific amounts of chemical indicators found and whether the student may be using any prescription or otherwise legal medication that can affect the test results.

There are other ways to adjust the cost. Blackburn says testing went from every week to an average of every other week to reduce the cost of getting the contractor’s collection staff to Northwestern. “We doubled the number of students we tested and just made it every other week,” he says. “But it’s not on a cycle where someone can figure out that this is a test week or not a test week. We may go two or three weeks back to back and then skip a week or two.” Northwestern pays $35 per test for collection, testing, and follow-up paperwork.

Hunterdon High now uses “oral-fluid testing” after deciding it was quicker and less intrusive, says Brady. It uses a toothbrush-like swab to draw a saliva sample and its cost is similar to full laboratory testing.

How to cover the costs varies as well. Certain federal grants programs, including those in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, allow for funds to be used for random student drug-testing, and the federal Department of Education has specific testing grants available (see “Resources” box below).

Some schools charge students and their families. Guymon High assessed a $15 fee when it required every participant to be tested before sports participation, Williams says. Seneca Valley charges students $26 for a mandatory pre-participation test for athletes and has families pay for follow-up testing if the initial screening suggests drug use, Henry says.

While some schools have a pre-participation test for all student-athletes and other specified students in the testing pool, a random plan is more typical. Computer software can randomly generate a list of student names. When Hunterdon started, Rossi says, it aimed to test 10 percent of the athletes participating in a given season, so five names were drawn once a week throughout the season.

Usually, assistant principals round-up the students chosen to be tested. An announcement is made, via intercom or other means, for selected students to report to the nurse’s office, gym, or elsewhere. At Hunterdon, the goal is as little disruption in the day as possible, so students are called from a study hall or beginning or end of a class period when possible. A nurse reads from a script (the students and parents have already been given forms explaining the process) and begins the process, which takes about 10 minutes.

“There was a learning curve,” Rossi says, particularly about the reality of urinating on demand. “We found that if we didn’t test them at the beginning of the school day, say between 8 and 10 o’clock, we ran into problems where kids couldn’t give a sample. I think they were allowed to drink seven ounces of water to be able to give a sample [excessive hydration is often seen as a way to beat certain types of drug screens]. We were testing at different parts of the day, and we found out it won’t work.”

In addition to season-long random testing, some schools seek to drug-test all year, regardless of sport season. This is to reach students who simply stop using drugs as their season approaches and resume it afterward.

As smooth as collecting and processing test samples might become, it’s only the beginning of a testing program. The true measure of testing is what happens after science suggests drug use. This is where the effectiveness of the program may be determined.

“The idea is not to catch them and punish them,” says Rossi. “The idea is to get them help if we do catch them.”

At Hunterdon, if a follow-up in-lab test confirms the presence of a prohibited substance, the student and his or her parents meet with a student-assistance counselor and decide on an intervention strategy, explains Brady. “That can be anything from the student meeting with the student-assistance counselor once a week for the rest of the school year, to an outside treatment program,” she says.

The student must attend five after-school education modules of decision making training run by the student-assistance counselors. The student then has to submit to regular drug screenings, and once tests are clean, he or she may return to the team or activity. Some schools require sitting out all season, but others allow a return when certain conditions are met.

Sanctions are limited to extracurricular activities and do not extend to the classroom. “There is no discipline associated with it, there is no removal from the academic program at any time, and there are no records that are kept in the student’s discipline file,” Brady says.

Other schools have a proscribed period of suspension from sports and activities. Positive tests at Seneca Valley result in a 14-day suspension from sports, Henry says, along with random tests for five weeks at the parents’ expense, and one year of counseling. At Northwestern High School, a confirmed positive test ends participation for the current or upcoming season, but on first offense, a student-athlete may rejoin the team after sitting out a certain percentage of the season by taking part in counseling or rehabilitation.

“They have that option of either sitting out the season or going through a program and showing the coach and teammates that ‘I shouldn’t have done what I did, and I’m going to show you that I will be a viable part of the team,’” Blackburn says.

Because the intervention component is so important, Brady reminds administrators that having a sound drug-prevention and counseling program is key. “Random testing should never be something that’s done in isolation,” she says. “It needs to be part of a comprehensive program.”

Caster says Dublin approached its program the same way. “Punishment, all of us understand, needs to be done. But if you think removing a kid from a team is going to stop him or her from using drugs, I think that’s being a little narrow,” he says. “Drug testing of athletes alone is not going to keep a kid off drugs.”

This reality gets at why athletic directors and coaches are at the heart of random drug-testing. “I see coaches as role models,” Blackburn says. “I ask them to talk about drug testing primarily with the athletes’ health and well-being in mind. Not, ‘If you get caught you’re going to serve time off this team.’ Coaches need to take the point of view that student-athletes’ well-being is most important, and tell them that’s why they need to refrain from substances.”

Sidebar: Legal Logistics
Legal Logistics
Even with the Supreme Court’s rulings that drug testing is constitutional, legal issues may be a major consideration in setting up a drug-testing program. To stay within the guidelines set by these decisions, there are four main points to adhere to.

First, testing can’t be required of the entire public-school student body. Only students who diminish their expectations of privacy by seeking participation in a voluntary extracurricular activity or privilege are eligible. Second, records must be kept confidential, results may not be turned over to law enforcement, and the only consequences can be suspension from the extracurricular activity. Third, intrusiveness must be minimized; thus, typically no one watches students provide urine samples. Instead, monitors wait and listen outside a closed stall or stand behind a student whose back is turned. Fourth, trying to curb student use of illegal drugs should be an immediate school need.

Chain-of-possession procedures are also critical. “It’s got to be done right,” says Rod Sherrill, Athletic Director at Herrin (Ill.) High School. “We have one local school where somebody drives the urine sample over to the hospital. They really don’t have a chain of custody. If a kid really wanted to fight it, they could, because, who knows? The guy might have swapped it on the way.”

Mike Blackburn, Athletic Director at Northwestern High School in Kokomo, Ind., suggests you know your state laws, too. His school stopped testing student drivers for nicotine after an Indiana court ruled that another district couldn’t include the substance in its testing because it doesn’t impair drivers. Athletes, however, can be tested for nicotine because smoking affects their health and safety during participation, Blackburn says.

In other cases, families are testing schools’ right to drug test under state constitutions. For example, in 1999, a school in Indiana was sued by a student’s family and the American Civil Liberties Union under Indiana privacy provisions. “This persisted for about a year, and in the end, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ability to drug test,” Blackburn says. “I think it’s common today that some of the state ACLU chapters are filing cases based on their state constitutions instead of the U.S. Constitution.”

A common source of assistance in passing legal muster with program design is the testing companies themselves. The bulk of the industry deals with workplace testing, but schools are a growing market, and many companies can walk administrators through many key decision points.


The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Division of Workplace Programs maintains a list of laboratories certified to conduct drug testing of federal employees:

The Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association maintains certification programs:

The National Federation of State High School Associations has an extensive section on student drug testing on its web site:

Information on federal demonstration grants is at

Seneca Valley (Pa.) High School’s policy is on the school web site, along with some revisions made for the 2003-04 school year, at