Editorial: School drug testing a divisive issue

School board members in Cambria have backed away from a proposal to conduct random drug testing of Coast Union High School students involved in sports and competitive extracurricular activities.

Instead, the school will cast a smaller net: Students who are caught in attendance at a party where drugs or alcohol are offered — or are caught abusing drugs or alcohol on campus — will be suspended from sports and other extracurricular activities, and required to undergo drug testing and counseling.

In other words, students will not be tested unless they’ve done something to rouse the suspicions of school officials. That sounds eminently fair to us.

We also see this as a reasonable compromise between two camps: one that advocated random testing as a way to keep students safe, and another that viewed testing as a violation of student rights and an attempt to take over a role that rightfully belongs to parents.

Each side made sound and convincing arguments, so it’s no surprise that Coast Unified School District officials wrestled with this for several weeks.

They weren’t alone. This important issue has divided many communities and organizations, including the U.S. Supreme Court. It split, 5-4, when it decided in 2002 that school districts could randomly test students involved in extracurricular activities, in addition to student athletes.

As a result of that ruling, many districts around the nation adopted random testing policies, but as yet, there are no clear-cut data on the success of these programs. For every study indicating that random testing has resulted in lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse, you’ll find another that contradicts those findings.

It is clear, however, that we can’t ignore the problem of student drug abuse and hope that it goes away — not when the consequences are so dire.

Statistics show that young people who abuse drugs and alcohol face some frightening consequences. They are more likely to be involved in accidents; more likely to be victims of crime; and more likely to engage in unplanned and unsafe sex.

In the face of community opposition to random testing, Coast Unified School District trustees could have simply tabled the matter and hoped that it would be forgotten.

Instead, it developed a reasonable — and tough — alternative that ultimately had widespread support. Even some of those who initially favored drug testing, including district Superintendent Chris Adams, were pleased with the outcome.

“This is a lot better than it was five or six months ago,” Adams said. “Counseling for the students and family members is the key.”

Agreed. We commend Coast Unified School District trustees, along with all the parents, students and community members who contributed to this critically important debate.