High School Athletics and Drug Testing

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More schools are drug testing students who participate in sports or other extracurricular activities.

Before the 2019-2020 school year got underway, schools in Fort Scott, KS, announced plans to perform random drug tests on all middle and high school students who wanted to participate in athletics or any other extracurricular activities.

They were not alone. The Bushland Independent School District in Amarillo, TX, and the Plainwell (MI) Board of Education publicized similar programs. And in Indiana, a state lawmaker introduced a bill that would mandate random drug tests for high school athletes across the state.

An increasing number of school districts are choosing to test students ― some as young as 11 ― for substances such as marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and opioids, including prescription pain relievers.

Nationally, just under 38% of schools have drug-testing policies in place, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC’s) 2016 School Health Policies and Practices Study. A decade earlier, roughly 25% of schools drug-tested students who participated in sports or extracurricular activities, Kaiser Health News reports.

School administrators, school board members, parents, and students themselves have strong opinions about the pros and cons of high school athlete drug testing. The topic is one that many athletic directors can expect to encounter as part of their high school sports management duties. An advanced degree, such as an online Master of Athletic Administration from Ohio University, can offer them the in-depth knowledge they need to deal with drug testing and other controversial issues.

Drug Testing History and Legalities

Though drug testing is accepted in many American workplaces, it’s a relatively new legal issue in schools.

“School drug-testing grew out of the so-called war on drugs,” FindLaw explains. “Prior to the 1980s, citizens were rarely tested for drugs except by law enforcement officers and primarily when there were grounds for suspicion. … But along with other sweeping social changes, the drug war introduced the idea of so-called mandatory suspicionless testing in the workplace. After spreading from the public to the private sector, the trend reached public high schools in limited form — in the testing of student-athletes — in the late 1980s.”

Under the Fourth Amendment, the legal website Lawyers.com notes, “public schools generally aren’t allowed to search students or their belongings unless they have a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the students have broken the law or school rules, and that the search will turn up evidence of that wrongdoing.”

But student-athletes are a special case, which the Supreme Court cited in its ruling in Vernonia (Oregon) School District v. Acton, a 1995 case that upheld the constitutionality of random testing of athletes.

“Student-athletes have even less of a legitimate privacy expectation, for an element of communal undress is inherent in athletic participation, and athletes are subject to preseason physical exams and rules regulating their conduct,” FindLaw.com explains.

College athletes are tested as well, while at the professional level, most players can count on being drug tested at least once a year, sometimes on a set schedule and sometimes at random. What the pros look for primarily is steroids and other performance-enhancing substances, according to the sports website Sports Reference. NASCAR also tests for recreational drugs, while the NBA and WNBA include steroids, stimulants, cocaine, opiates, PCP, LSD, and marijuana.

Pros and Cons of High Schools Athlete Drug Testing

Supporters of drug testing say the policy is necessary because student-athletes are role models who have to set a drug-free example to their peers. It also helps prevent kids from using and getting hooked on drugs.

Opponents call it unnecessary and invasive and maintain that the money ― testing can cost a school district thousands of dollars per year, Kaiser News Network reports ― could be better spent.

Reasons that schools enact drug-testing policies include:

  • The policy is a deterrent and gives kids a reason to say no to drugs, Kaiser Health News reports.
  • Testing can identify students who do drugs and enable the school to get them the treatment they need, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • Testing helps provide “an environment that is safe, free from illegal substance abuse, and conducive to learning,” the Bushland Independent School District told USA Today.
  • Policies can decrease student drug and alcohol use, according to an article on the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) website.

The Classroom, an online resource for college and college planning, sums up the arguments again drug testing in schools:

  • Students have a right to privacy.
  • Schools shouldn’t police what students do in their private lives.
  • The school’s budget could be put to better use.
  • Drug tests can come back positive by mistake.
  • Drug testing doesn’t lead to a decrease in drug use, or brings about a small decrease at best.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also argues that:

  • Drug testing violates students’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
  • Testing presumes students to be guilty until proven innocent.
  • Drug tests won’t catch most drug users because many drugs, including alcohol, “are virtually undetectable unless the student is under the influence at the time the test is administered.”
  • Policies can deter some students from becoming involved in athletics or other extracurricular activities.

As leaders responsible for the education and physical training of young people, athletic administrators should be cognizant of the complex issues surrounding drug testing for student-athletes.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Program

Ohio University, a leader in athletic education, established the first specialized academic sports program in the United States in 1966.

The online Master of Athletic Administration program is designed for professionals looking to advance their careers in athletic administration. Graduates are eligible for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification. On average, students can complete the program in two years and develop the skills to run a successful interscholastic athletic department that meets the needs of student-athletes.

For more information, contact Ohio University today.

Recommended Reading:

A High School Athletic Director’s Guide to Pay-to-Play Sports

Identifying Mental Health Concerns in High School Athletes

Athletic Directors: Planning for the Season



Drug testing in 2019 school year:

Fort Scott, KS: Kaiser Health News

Bushland, TX: USA Today

Plainwell, MI: Michigan Live

Indiana: WISH TV


School drug test stats:

School Health Policies and Practices Study 2016: CDC

Increase in testing: Kaiser Health News


Legalities: FindLaw.com

Fourth Amendment: Lawyers.com

Court case: FindLaw.com

Pro sports testing: Sports Reference


Reasons to test:

Back to School 2019: Backpack, Lunchbox and a Drug Test: KHN

Frequently Asked Questions about Drug Testing in Schools: DrugAbuse.gov

Football, basketball and drug testing: USA Today

Why We Test Students for Drugs: AASA.com


Arguments against testing:

Arguments Against Drug Testing in Schools: TheClassroom.com

Why Student Drug Testing Does Not Work: ACLU