Stop drug research on Oregon kids



Oregon students shouldn't be forced to participate in scientific experiments. That's a no-brainer. But they are, with the classic justification that the invasive research is "for their own good."

Several Oregon students are among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed late last month in U.S. District Court against Oregon Health & Science University and 14 Oregon school districts. The lawsuit says a federally funded study of school-based drug testing violates the rights of students.

We strongly agree. We're unsure if the students will prevail, since legal precedent may not be on their side. But there is no question that suspicionless drug testing, particularly when combined with an outside research study, is an ethical morass and an abuse of school power.

Dr. Linn Goldberg of OHSU won a $3.6 million federal grant in 2000 to determine whether random drug testing deters drug and alcohol use among student athletes. The study has at least 13 Oregon districts participating as "control" and "experimental" groups. OHSU says it didn't force the tests on schools. However, the grant helps fund the drug tests, and researchers determine the testing protocols.

And the invisible hand of the researcher is ever present -- sometimes offering a metaphoric slap for student athletes who fail to obey.

One girl from the Oakridge School District met Goldberg's wrath last year for refusing to give a urine sample. She "undermines the entire program," Goldberg told the press. "She is saying, 'I want to be different than you.' "

That kind of pressure on children is appalling. Treating students as guinea pigs adds insult to the main injury -- the drug tests themselves.

Drug testing in schools is constitutional because of a 1995 Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit by a 12-year-old Oregon boy against his district. The court upheld the Vernonia School District's policy of testing all athletes, saying the public benefit of reducing drug use outweighed students' privacy rights.

The majority's misguided opinion laid the groundwork for the court's 5-4 decision this June to allow drug testing of students in all extracurricular activities. The slippery slope was greased with the court's original thinking: suspicionless drug testing may be intrusive, but it's for the students' own good.

Protests against the drug testing and research in Oregon have been limited, which isn't surprising. Families don't want to make waves. Students can't ruin their college plans by sitting out sports and activities. And many parents have taken drug tests required by private employers.

So why should schools be any different? First, private employment is a choice, unlike school. Second, schools are part of the government. If one part can justify suspicionless searches, so can others.

Finally, public school offers the best chance to teach young people about civic rights and responsibilities. What about a teenager who grows up thinking the government can take her urine and bully her into being a guinea pig?

Schools do need to stay vigilant about drugs and alcohol. Enforcing a zero-tolerance policy is critical. Testing for athletes who show clear signs of drug use may be justifiable as a last resort; one student's steroid use, for example, can put other students at risk.

But Oregon families should follow the lead of parents in Lincoln County, who protested loud enough to get five schools removed from the study. It's far better to encourage teen-agers to play sports and join activities than to treat them like Future Offenders of America.