WASHINGTON -- High school students who use drugs should be treated and counseled, not simply suspended or expelled, according to a new guidelines from the Bush administration.
Issued Thursday by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the guide says the aim of drug testing ''is not to trap and punish students who use drugs. It is, in fact, counterproductive simply to punish them without trying to alter their behavior.''
John P. Walters, who directs the office, said such testing should be done to get help for students, not to punish them.
''The goal is to say we believe we can do a better job of making kids healthy,'' he said.
It strongly cautions against suspending or expelling students without treating them, noting that expulsion can create ''drug-using dropouts,'' an even bigger problem.
The advice challenges policies in many districts that automatically suspend or expell students caught with drugs.
Dan Langan, an Education Department spokesperson, said the department believes schools should be free to make their own decisions on how to treat drug offenders.
''The guide is a tool and it's a helpful tool, but how a district and a school chose to implement any recommendations in the guide is up to them,'' Langan said. ''How it's carried out in a school district would be a local issue.''
But Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said her group would back the new guidelines.
''That's what we would endorse, helping kids, not simply punishing them,'' she said. ''It doesn't do anybody any good just to take a drug test and kick the kid out of school -- where's he going to go? It doesn't solve anyone's problem and may in fact worsen it.''
The guide says schools should ''proceed with caution'' when testing students for drugs, making sure they ''have a good idea of precisely what drugs their students are using'' before beginning testing.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June that schools can require students to submit to drug tests before participating in competitive after-school activities, even if they have no particular reason to suspect wrongdoing. Drug tests had been allowed previously just for student athletes.
That decision gave schools a free hand to test more than half the estimated 14 million Amer-ican high school students.
The court stopped short of allowing random tests for any student, but several justices have indicated they are interested in answering that question at some point.
Critics have also said that keeping students out of extracurricular activities because they use drugs will lead more students to abandon the activities.
Many schools test athletes for drugs, but wider drug testing remains relatively rare among the nation's 15,500 public school districts.
The new guide cautioned that the decision to implement a testing program shouldn't be left up to an individual or even a school board, but should include public input, including that of opponents.
''It is not enough to have a general sense that student drug testing sounds like a good idea,'' it says. ''Schools must first determine whether there is a real need for drug testing.''
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