Every single student at three private high schools in Cleveland, Ohio—about 2,770 teenagers in total—will be subject to hair follicle drug testing when they return to the classroom this fall, courtesy of Psychemedics Corp. Administrators from St. Ignatius High School (SIHS), St. Edward High School (SEHS), and Gilmour Academy made the announcement this week, insisting that their primary concern is the welfare of students at these private, Catholic schools. However, this claim warrants some scrutiny, since it's backed up by weak evidence, the testing puts kids at new risks, and the principal of SEHS, James Kubacki, happens to be the brother of Psychemedics CEO Raymond Kubacki.
Cleveland Scene magazine was the first to raise an eyebrow about this relationship, but K.C. McKenna, an SEHS administrator, insisted that it was basically happenstance. "Really, this came about as a proactive, preventative measure… Certainly, [James] knew a little more about the process because of his brother being involved, but his brother being CEO of that company in no way led to us making the decision to use Psychemedics."
McKenna also told Scene that "several years of research" went into the decision. Significantly, when Reason contacted all three schools, they were unable to meet a request for any actual documentation of this research, discussions of alternative policies, or board meeting minutes—just anecdotes.
Devin Schlickmann, a Gilmour administrator who until recently worked at SEHS, says that James Kubacki recused himself from voting on the decision and was open with board members about his relationship to the company's head. However, that their children would be drug tested by the principal's brother was conspicuously absent from SEHS's letter to parents. The other two schools also forgot to mention that fact. Likewise, the Plain Dealer reports that it wasn't stated at the institution-wide meetings to discuss with students their soon-to-be-curtailed privacy.
That's kind of surprising, since the Kubacki brothers are also alumni of SIHS, and James has donated money to the school as recently as last year. An SIHS representatives tells Reason that the school sees no conflict of interest in all these parties working together (Full disclosure: I'm also an SIHS alum). The three schools assert that Psychemedics was the only company with the FDA clearance they sought when the deal-making began (though a different company did approach them before it was finalized).
This wouldn't be the first time Psychemedics' promoters are close to the schools to which they're selling. Dr. George Elder, a principal for decades, says he instituted drug testing for all students and faculty members at his school. Now he's Psychemedics vice president and pitchman. The Huffington Post in 2012 highlighted Henry Connick, who "pushed hair testing in New Orleans schools, including Catholic schools, during his tenure as [district attorney]" and later became a board member and shareholder of Psychemedics.
Even if one takes it at face value that the Kubacki brothers' deal is just coincidence, it's no fluke that Psychemedics is in the business of targeting as many minors as possible. "Our primary focus is workplace drug testing," Raymond said last year. But, as workplace drug testing has been on the decline for years, he acknowledged that Psychemedics is pivoting toward "emerging markets and one of those would be schools and colleges."
How much can Psychemedics and Raymond personally expect to gain from this lucky new relationship with nearly 3,000 teens? Each test costs $50, which adds up to $124,650 once every kid has forked over his first lock of hair. That's a hefty projected windfall for year one of this subscription-style contract. Pyschemedics will actually make more, though, since the schools will randomly pick students for additional testing throughout the year. And one can only estimate the number of kids who will get caught (or more tragically, get a false positive) and have to fork over another 50 bucks to Kubacki's company.
It's also worth noting how disproportionately Raymond Kubacki rewards himself for his pot puffer hunting business. Last year he raked in $667,880, or about 17 percent of his company's net income. For comparison, the regularly gasped-at compensation of Wal Mart's CEO is 0.1 percent of his company's net income.
Psychemedics constructs drug war bogeymen, and three more schools just took the bait. This Cleveland bunch worries that there's a "heroin epidemic" in town. Yet county-wide, only 161 people—or 1/100th of one percent of the population—died from heroin-related causes last year. They fret that lenient marijuana laws elsewhere the country will cause local youth to smoke, even though studies have debunked any such connection. Elder tells Reason that those states are being "ripped to shreds" by legal weed, so one can only imagine how he pitched his wares to the priests.
The schools themselves aren't exactly honest in saying that the results will be used to help kids, not punish them. SIHS acknowledged that they'll turn tests over to police if need be. Schlickmann admits that Gilmour will boot a pupil after three failed tests.
SIHS principal Dan Bradesca stated that "??even though there is no evidence of widespread substance abuse among our student body, even one student at risk is one too many." But what about the innocent students at risk of getting a false positive?
Psychemedics' big selling point (doc) to schools is that their tests produce zero false positives. That's simply not possible and it's actually quite a dangerous claim to make, because it creates a false sense of certainty. Even if there's only a 1 percent false positive rate, a handful of kids are going to be falsely accused and put in an indefensible position every single year. These academic institutions can count their "zero false positives" and supposed recoveries not just in the number of drug-testing success stories but in the money innocent kids will forfeit on another test and the time they'll lose getting help for a problem they don't have. The schools should probably also tally the number of kids who get hurt when they turn to more dangerous synthetic drugs that won't show up on their looming test.
What's harder to quantify, though, is how these 2,770 students will feel when their privacy and once-presumed innocence has evaporated, and the trust that they shared with their schools and parents has been corroded and replaced by whatever results come back from a lab.