Making sure schools foster a positive environment is more likely to deter students from smoking cigarettes and marijuana than using drug testing, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania.
Drug testing policies are a fairly common tactic in schools as a way to discourage students from abusing drugs and alcohol. About 20 percent of high schools in the United States have drug testing policies, and of the 361 students interviewed for the UPenn study, one-third said their schools had a drug testing policy.
But the study -- led by Daniel Romer, associate director of the university's Annenberg Public Policy Center -- found over the next year, students in schools with drug testing policies were no less likely than other students to try marijuana, cigarettes or alcohol. Climate, the researchers found, is the overriding factor.
"That suggests to us that you can have a school that does testing and really does have a good climate, and it's probably much more acceptable in that case," Romer says. "We found climate is really what governed how much change there was in their use of drugs, and drug testing is totally unrelated."
"It's not good, not bad, it just doesn't seem to be related at all to how much kids started to use drugs or continued to use drugs," he added.
The team measured school climate based off five factors, drawn from previous studies on school climate: whether students respect each other, teachers respect students and students respect teachers; whether students think teachers handle problems well; and whether school rules are clear.
"We really drilled down to how teachers interact with teachers," Romer says. "Do they treat them like little pawns that they move around? Or do they actually try to educate them and involve them in decision making and help them to think on their own?"
Still, school climate seemed to have more of an effect for girls than boys, Romer says. In schools with drug testing policies, a positive school climate helped girls, whereas the opposite was true for schools with a poor perceived climate.
"When the school has a bad climate and they test, the girls are almost rebellious," Romer says. "They found they were actually using the drugs more. But it didn't matter for boys."
Overall, however, school climate did not deter students from using alcohol. Romer says the finding was disappointing because in the past, school climate showed similar effects with drug use and alcohol use.
"Alcohol seems to be a problem all on its own," Romer says. "Alcohol apparently is very normative in high school kids, to the extent that they're in a peer group that's likely to drink. They're going to do it, they're going to feel like it's not a big deal."