Are school drug tests workable?

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Everyone is agreed that drugs are an increasing problem in our schools, but Government plans to test children have been met with fierce opposition from education professionals who feel it is not their job. Raymond Ross reports

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The Prime Minister Tony Blair's proposal for random drug tests in schools (an idea first suggested more than 30 years ago by the maverick MP Tam Dalyell), alongside the use of sniffer dogs, has made the headlines recently and may be introduced in England.

In Scotland, some accept the idea in principle, but the directors of Scotland Against Drugs and the Scottish Drugs Forum point out huge legal, moral and practical problems if the idea were to be implemented. And headteachers are adamant that administering such tests, random or otherwise, is simply not their job.

While both the Prime Minister and Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell, grabbed the headlines over the issue, it was left to the Scottish Minister for Education and Young People, Peter Peacock, to back-pedal furiously last week.

Mr McConnell had said he wanted the police to be able to test people whenever and wherever they felt drug-taking was taking place, including school playgrounds, streets, pubs and prisons.

He said: " 'Where' should not be the issue. Those who say there should be no drug-testing in schools are living in cloud-cuckoo-land, but I also think that we need to be responsible about the way we tackle drugs in schools."

He added that Mr Peacock would be writing that very day to every headteacher in Scotland to find out their opinions on the issue. In the event, Mr Peacock simply wrote to the headteachers' associations, asking them "to reflect on the issue".

"The idea is superficial. It's little more than window-dressing," says SDF director David Liddell. "There are lots of ways round drug tests and loads of websites which advertise the different ways to get round them. And there is no evidence to suggest testing achieves any reduction in drug use."

Mr Liddell is not alone in also believing that testing would undermine the trust between teachers, pupils and parents.

He says: "The majority of young people who experiment with drugs don't go into problematic drug use or come to significant harm. We think resources should be targeted at the vulnerable children who are most likely to go into problematic drug use.

"We can identify the vulnerable ones quite early. We should be concentrating on this, putting our resources in here," he says.

The director of SAD, Alastair Ramsay, says: "Scotland has been way ahead of England for a long time. Between 1998 and 2001 SAD trained one teacher and the head of every primary school in drugs education.

"By March 2004 we'll have at least one secondary teacher trained in every school, up to 10 in some schools, to teach the drugs education curriculum as well as being trained in how to deal with drug related incidents.

"In Scotland, we are well covered. Neither the drugs education curriculum nor the training in how to deal with drug related incidents has been done to anything like this degree in England.

"It's good that the minister wants to consult but I get no sense that headteachers would be interested in using random tests or sniffer dogs, though they will be waiting to see what happens in England."

Mr Ramsay also emphasises the legal and practical problems.

"A test can only work if the subject gives a urine sample to a medically qualified person. The subject keeps part of the sample, as does the person receiving it. The third part must then be couriered to a proper laboratory with a secure chain of custody because if a court action is to come of it, the court will expect such a chain of custody. Who is going to pay for it all?

"It needs to be better thought through," he says.

Mr Liddell agrees.

"Saliva tests are not reliable. They would have to use urine tests for legal or court purposes. It would still be a legal minefield.

"Though drug tests are more invasive and personal, sniffer dogs don't conjure up very promising images either and would simply add to the breakdown of trust," he says.

Linlithgow Academy in West Lothian is at the forefront of drugs education awareness, with 25 of its 85 staff trained in the drugs education curriculum and how to deal with drug related incidents.

This is not because the school has a particular problem but because an enthusiastic and caring staff volunteer to take advantage of the resources provided by the local authority and SAD.

The general consensus, according to the headteacher, various members of staff, the youth worker attached to the school and the local (police) drugs awareness officer, is that while testing might be a good idea in principle (and not all agreed on this), the human rights and practical issues involved create a minefield.

Would the pupils believe the testing was random or that they had been specifically singled out? Can you oblige a pupil to take a test, random or otherwise? How would this affect pupils' and parents' relationships with the school? Could testing fit in with the largely pupil-supportive policy of West Lothian? Could you test to support a vulnerable pupil without recourse to legal or court proceedings? Who tests? Who employs the testers? Who pays? All these questions need to be considered.

"I believe that if we can't identify pupils using drugs, then we can't support them but I'm not an advocate of random tests," says headteacher John Low.

"It would affect trust, respect and confidence and undermine the relaxed, informal atmosphere on which positive behaviour is grounded here.

"I don't think urine tests are feasible but I'd like some kind of test where you have reasonable suspicion. You'd need to bring in the police to administer that. Do they have the resources?"

West Lothian drugs awareness officer PC Iain Wells says: "We already have clear guidelines to follow, agreed by police, education and the children's reporter. We have this working protocol and I think random drug testing would be a hindrance.

"In any case, I am not qualified to carry out any kind of medical test.

It's not in my remit. I'm not trained to do it. I'm here to enforce the law," he says.

Depute headteacher Jack Laurie, who is one of the first members of staff to be called in on any drug related incident, says: "As a pupil support manager, your first concern is medical assistance and then informing parents, calling in the police if necessary.

"I'd be concerned about how random drug testing would fit into this supportive policy."

Hard drugs tend not to be a problem in schools, says principal teacher of guidance Angus McGarry. "The problems surround cannabis and alcohol, but I have to say alcohol is the major problem in Scottish schools."

And what of sniffer dogs? How would the pupils react to them? Amid much laughter among the staff, a voice pipes up: "Och, they'd probably clap them."

Fred Wildridge headteacher, Grange Academy Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire

"I accept society has a drugs problem and schools are a reflection of society, so there will be some abuse, but drug testing is not my job.

"Young people over 12 have reached the age of legal capacity and can refuse medical treatment, like TB innoculations, and so could refuse to take such a test. See section 57 of the Standards in Scottish Schools etc Act 2000.

"Drug testing is a medical procedure, so the whole thing could fall flat on its face.

"What if we suspect someone is taking drugs and we ask them to submit to a voluntary test and they say no? It could cause confrontation. You would just be creating a climate for confrontation.

"Also, we are teachers and our prime function is to educate, not to police schools. We're not some kind of in-fill for a social deficit model.

"If the police arrived with a qualified medical team and the pupils consented to be tested, that's fine.

"I'm not convinced of the value of sniffer dogs either. But, again, if the police arrive with reasonable suspicion to search someone for drugs or offensive weapons or whatever, I've no issue with that."

Graham Herbert headteacher, Lockerbie Academy Dumfries and Galloway

"The proposals are unworkable and I don't see drug testing as part of my role or responsibility.

"It would raise all sorts of issues with parents. 'On what basis did you decide to test my child?'

"And if a child refuses andor refuses with parental backing, what kind of legal quandary does that put you in?

"And how does it fit with the rights of the child, especially the new exclusion rights? The rights of the child are becoming more paramount with the passing of every Bill and this would seem to go against that grain.

"And, tell me, is drug testing really the school's job?"

Dan McGinty headteacher, Blairgowrie High Perth and Kinross

"The misuse of drugs is a growing problem in society. This brings increasing pressures to which schools are responding through education programmes, advice and support for young people.

"We should remain aware of the problems caused by alcohol and tobacco, as well as other drugs and act where there is misuse.

"As we improve our partnership working and develop integrated community schools, we may become better at responding to problems with drugs, which are often rooted in the local community, but at present schools are not well-enough equipped to undertake drug testing."

Ralph Barker headteacher, Alloa Academy Clackmannanshire

"As a parent with three children at secondary school I would be most upset if any of mine were tested on a random basis.

"Therefore, as a headteacher, I would be very wary of determining the criteria for random testing. It would cause parental problems and if the testing were non-random I would also predict a parental backlash.

"This is society's problem. Our task is to support the child.

"We are well aware of which of our pupils are involved in drugs because we have a good guidance department who can get this information from them.

"During recent in-service days we looked after one particular pupil in school rather than leave him at home where he is exposed to drugs. It's about supporting pupils, not hitting them over the head with a brick.

"And where does testing stop? Do we test for alcohol at school discos?"

"I'm totally against the idea of sniffer dogs. Why target the schools? Are they going to go into homes with sniffer dogs too?"

Robert Skene headteacher, Torry Academy Aberdeen

"When I first heard they were thinking of introducing random drug tests and sniffer dogs in England, I thought 'As long as they keep it down there and don't introduce it up here'.

"I don't want to test. It's not my job. It could be regarded as an infringement of civil liberties and could cause big problems.

"Schools are not the place to introduce testing or sniffer dogs. The problem is a whole society thing and this smacks of control freakery.

"We have a school and local authority policy for dealing with drug-related incidents which is based on supporting pupils but also giving them the message of no drugs in school.

"If you test a group of pupils you suspect of having taken drugs before they come to school or during a break and they test positive, what do you do then? Send them home? Exclude them? Put them in a special class for remedial drug education? Who is going to set that up and man it?

"Where is the manpower to do the actual testing and follow it up?"

Moira Leslie headteacher, Raigmore Primary Inverness

"The idea of headteachers administering or taking responsibility for drug tests is problematic. The practicalities are too enormous to think about and, even if they weren't, the head administering them, the principle of allowing it to happen in primary schools is quite daunting.

"What about human rights and children's rights issues? What about confidentiality?

"Do such seemingly drastic measures equate to the problem in primaries? I don't know the levels or the severity of drug-related incidents in primaries but it must be much less than in secondaries.

"Testing also begs the question of alcohol, which is potentially more of an issue in primaries. Should we be testing for that too?

"As for sniffer dogs, no thank you.

"And if the tests had to be urine tests, the teaching profession is not geared up to do this. We are simply not equipped to deal with it.

"In a region like Highland there are small rural primaries which don't even have a dedicated staffroom, never mind a medical room. Where would the testing be done in a school where every room has at least a double purpose?"


A national survey of schoolchildren in Scotland in 2002 found:

* 34 per cent of 13-year-olds said they had been offered a drug; 13 per cent said they had used a drug

* 65 per cent of 15-year-olds said they had been offered a drug; 37 per cent said they had used a drug

* cannabis was the most commonly used drug; 31 per cent of 15-year-olds said they had taken it in the past year

* use of drugs such as heroin and cocaine was very rare in this age group; in fact, more 13-and 15-year-olds said they had been offered, or had used, solvents.

Source: Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey, Scottish Executive, 2002

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