Controversy increases over drug testing in schools

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Controversy is growing within the school system over the merits of random drug testing for pupils as a way to counter the perceived rise in drug use.

Advocates say that testing gives pupils a legitimate reason to resist peer pressure and ‘just say no’ when offered drugs.

Critics suggest that testing could stigmatise children testing positive and create a feeling of mistrust between schools and their pupils.

Government and the authorities seem to be split on the issue. Ministers in Westminster are making positive noises about the need to evaluate such schemes with a view to a wider roll out. However, when the Headteachers Association of Scotland repeated these views, the Scottish Executive was quick to say there was “no appetite” for such a move.

So what is the way forward?

Chris Snelson from Altrix Healthcare, the company that last year helped set up and manage the UK’s first ever state school testing scheme at the Abbey School in Kent, sounds a cautious note and offers advice for schools considering drug testing.

“Random drug testing isn’t a new phenomenon. However it’s only recently that calls have come for it to be considered within schools. The reasons for this have more to do with advances in technology rather than any escalation in a drugs problem amongst our nation’s youth.

“In recent years testing for drugs of abuse using oral fluid has begun to replace urine as the preferred method. This has meant testing is easier to carry out, more dignified and the samples are easier to handle – all of which makes testing appropriate for non-clinical environments and less intrusive for the pupil.

“This has led to increased interest from some schools in how they could implement testing to help discourage the use of drugs amongst their pupils.

“The first example within a state school took place last year at the Abbey School in Kent. This involved random consent-based testing of both pupils and teachers. It was backed up with a counselling process for anyone refusing a test or testing positive and a wider drugs education initiative within the school.

“The initial feedback from the school has been positive with some evidence showing an improvement in exam results as well as positive anecdotal feedback from the teachers and pupils involved.

“The trial understandably attracted a lot of attention, not least because of the involvement of a national tabloid newspaper, and helped raise the profile of the debate. It showed that well planned testing schemes can operate in a school environment and indicated the approach is worthy of further investigation and research.

“However, it seems that some schools are keen to push ahead with similar schemes before any guidelines or standard approach can be agreed. A recent example came to light at two schools in Oldham that used ‘wipes’ aiming to detect traces of drugs from door handles or toilet cubicles.

“As a means to tackle drug use within their school, this approach is at best worthless and at worst potentially damaging to the bond of trust between school and pupils.

“With any such scheme it is vital that any results are conclusive and not open for interpretation. A wrong decision based on inconclusive information could have wide ranging implications.

“What do schools in this case do if the wipes show traces of cocaine on a door handle? At whom should it target its reaction – the pupils, the teachers or the cleaning staff? How can it be sure that the traces result from drug use? The cocaine wasn’t in someone’s system so it could have come from the five pound note they’ve just used to pay for their school lunch.

“Any action resulting from a positive result in this case would be lacking in any justification and would be likely to create a sense of mistrust within the school and the branding of ‘problem’ pupils.

“This example paints a worrying picture of what could happen if the growing appetite for some form of drug testing is not addressed and proper procedures are not put in place. Schools are not best placed to make clinical judgements and need guidance on whether such schemes are effective, what tests are suitable and how best to structure the after-care for any pupil showing a positive result.

“The government must take positive action to address this issue, providing correct guidance for schools that are interested in implementing drug testing. Without it, we risk seeing the growth of well-meaning but poorly conceived schemes that could do more harm than good.

“Any school thinking about implementing drug testing should ask four key questions:

  1. 1. How does testing fit into the school’s overall strategy of helping support the welfare of its pupils? Testing should not be used as a means to threaten or punish people who break the rules. Rather it is a means to incentivise pupils to avoid behaviour likely to cause them harm and to identify those that may need help tackling an addiction or to address personal issues associated with drug use. Without these additional support systems testing becomes meaningless.
  2. 2. Do pupils, teachers and parents support the goals of testing? Aside from the legal requirements for consent, there is a wider need for consensus amongst the school community for testing to be seen as a positive move.
  3. 3. How will you monitor its impact? The numbers of positive or negative results aren’t the measure of success. Think about what the scheme is being used to achieve and then establish ways to determine whether it is having the desired outcome.
  4. 4. Will the drug test give you an accurate answer? Not all tests are the same and vary in what insight they can provide. Remember, its not just a drug testing kit you will be purchasing, you are buying a means to obtain information about your pupil – it is imperative that an accredited drug testing laboratory is used to provide the most accurate information and avoid any false results.

Feature courtesy of Altrix Healthcare plc