The Worcester Public Schools and the Drug Fantasies of the State House

By Gordon Davis
First, let me start off by saying that the opioid crisis is real and something needs to be done about it. Overall, it is a good thing that the State House recently passed an opioid bill.

The bill mandates drug screenings for public school children. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that the crisis is particularly acute in public schools. In fact, the statistical evidence is that drug use of any kind among high schools is declining.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse in a recent report said the following:

2014’s Monitoring the Future survey of drug use and attitudes among American 8th, 10th, and 12th graders continued to show encouraging news about youth drug use, including decreasing use of alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription pain relievers; no increase in use of marijuana; decreasing use of inhalants and synthetic drugs, including K2/Spice and bath salts; and a general decline over the last two decades in the use of illicit drugs. 

Misuse and abuse (or “non-medical use”) of prescription and over-the-counter drugs continues to decline among the nation’s youth. Past-year use of the opioid pain reliever Vicodin has dropped significantly over the past 5 years; 4.8 percent of 12th graders used Vicodin for non-medical reasons in 2014, compared to 9.7 percent in 2009. Past-year use of narcotics other than heroin (which includes all opioid pain relievers) among high school seniors dropped from 7.1 percent in 2013 to 6.1 percent in 2014; 9.5 percent of seniors had reported past-year use of these drugs in 2004.

Private schools are not required to carry out drug screenings. Given that this is a medical issue, it seems prejudicial that the state Legislature was silent on drug screening for private schools. There are state laws on vaccinations that apply to private schools.

This seems to be another instance where public school children are treated in a disparate and maybe an unlawful manner.  The issue of mandatory drug screening certainly raises Fourth Amendment issues of searches by government agencies without probable cause. In this matter, it is a search without reasonable cause.

The drug screenings are to be conducted by school nurses or other medical personnel. 

I do not think each high school and middle school in Worcester has a school nurse; many of them were eliminated in budget cuts while ago. It is likely that there will be more layoffs next fiscal year due to school underfunding.

In theory, the parents of a child are able to opt out their child from the drug screening. This raises process and procedure questions as to how the parents will be informed about the substance and implication of the drug screening and how to opt their child out.

There are also questions about medical records. From my experience in discrimination law, every “oral“ warning was actually written down and placed in the employee’s file. I am pretty sure that the same will happen with these drug screenings.
I cannot imagine what the process would be if the nurse or other interrogator came to the conclusion that a child was abusing drugs. Such a conclusion is likely an automatic suspension from school.  Although the conversations with medical personnel are “confidential,” it is not the same as the lawyer-client privilege. Medical personnel can be summoned to give an affidavit or to court.

The Mass Human Rights and PLP plan to raise these issues with the Worcester School Administration and the Worester School Committee.

It seems like an issue other groups should be interested in – groups such as CPPAC and Jobs/School Not Jail.

With the transition to a new WPS Superintendent Worcester might not get to these issues for a while. How other school districts handle this new drug screening mandate could prove helpful.

Perhaps the Worcester legislative senators and representatives and the governor’s office can sponsor an information session on how to carry out this mandate without violating children’s civil rights.