Test for drugs but do not punish, heads told

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Gwent schools uneasy about police advice on use of substance-abuse kit. Nicola Porter reports

Secondary school headteachers will not be able to exclude or suspend pupils who test positive for drugs under a new scheme.

Gwent police want to use a pound;40,000 computerised drug-testing kit to help identify young addicts in order to provide rehabilitation and support.

But heads are warning the scheme could conflict with their own disciplinary policies.

Those who give permission for the tests to take place must sign a contract saying they will not punish pupils found in possession of drugs during school hours.

Gwent is the first force in Wales to use the revolutionary equipment, which can identify traces of drugs on individuals' clothes, and where illegal substances have been taken.

Traces of cannabis have already been found in the toilets of one school in the Caerphilly area during a test run. Consultation meetings are being held in schools in the force area throughout July and every head has been sent a letter explaining the scheme. But early feedback suggests heads are uneasy about it and the possible repercussions for their schools.

PC Simon James, Gwent police crime prevention officer, said he believed many were worried about the stigma attached to positive results but stressed the aim was rehabilitation, not blame.

Helene Mansfield, head of Croesyceiliog comprehensive, Cwmbran, said it could conflict with school policy on drugs.

She said the idea was good in principle but that heads, parents and governors needed more information before giving permission for testing to take place.

At present, Croesyceiliog pupils found to be dealing drugs face expulsion, and disciplinary action is taken against individuals using drugs in school hours.

Geraint Davies, Welsh secretary of teachers' union NASUWT, said the use of the machine could act as a deterrent to pupils dabbling in drugs. But Dr Heledd Hayes, education officer at the NUT Cymru, said the move was a breach of children's rights and could frighten some pupils.

Brian Rowlands, secretary of the Secondary Heads Association Cymru, said:

"The technology could be valuable if it brings home to young people the dangers of drugs and the ease of detection.

"However, to use it as a detection weapon at this stage would be a dangerous step. Much greater consultation is needed on the invasion of privacy this could represent. Could it be used for adults in a school? I appreciate that detection could be used for counselling purposes but caution is needed."

The ion track detection machine is already used widely at under-18 clubs and pubs in Newport, Gwent. A Teflon strip is gently brushed over a person's hand or clothes, or an object, and the sample is placed inside a computer for analysis. The higher the reading, the more likely a person has handled drugs, or that drugs have been used in a particular area.

The Gwent force plans to use two sniffer dogs alongside random testing in schools. Pupils found to be drug users would be referred to a counsellor.

Police only act on a reading high enough to rule out cross-contamination from other sources.

William Graham, the Conservative party's Assembly education spokesman, tested positive for low levels of cross-contamination when he helped launch the machine. He said it could prove a valuable deterrent in the fight against drug use in the playground.

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