Mandatory school drug tests get ‘fail’ grade

When schools introduce mandatory drug testing – mandatory anything – they send a message to students that the way to solve problems is by enforced bullying of a captive audience. Not a good look, one would think, in a system where bullying behaviour is a big problem.

Dear Student

Please find below Civil Liberties Australia’s response to your questions about drug testing students at The Southport School, Gold Coast, Qld.

PS. We are always happy to provide comment on civil liberties issues. If you want to stay up to date with what is happening in this area you might like to join CLA (student membership is just $10 a year). Each month we send out a newsletter of local and international happenings that impact on your rights.

Tim Vines and Rebecca Prior, from CLA, comment:

Q.      Do you think this drug testing on the students of The Southport School is breaching civil rights?

Civil Liberties Australia (CLA) is concerned that Southport doesn’t trust its students and their parents to make sensible choices and is thinking of imposing a blanket policy of random drug testing. CLA believes this is an unnecessary and probably ineffective measure, and one that is certainly an invasion of student’s privacy and rights to bodily integrity.

Imposing random drug testing in a school is a drastic measure and one more likely to distract students then reduce drug use. Is there evidence that drug use is a problem at this school above and beyond the levels of drug use in the wider community?

Students have a right to privacy and their parents have a right to be consulted before any medical procedure (and drug testing is a medical ‘forensic’ procedure). We would expect the school to require a parent’s consent to any such procedure and the assent of the student. Note: ‘assent’ is an ethical term used to describe the agreement of a person, e.g. a young person, who for some reason can’t effectively ‘consent’ to a procedure. It isn’t less important than ‘consent’, rather it means the person can’t legally sign a consent form (because the age of majority is 18 years in most States).

At home and at school, a student has rights. A school may discipline a student for disruptive behaviour or not finishing their Latin homework, but where is the connection between this school’s drug testing policy and problems in a classroom.

The head of a boarding school ‘stands in the shoes’ of a parent – but that doesn’t mean they have absolute control over their students. Rather, it means they have to act in the best interests of the students. Surely it is not in the best interests of a student to be publicly swabbed, examined and suspended because of recreational drug use that may not even be impacting on their work or behaviour in the classroom.

Q.      In your opinion, do you think drug use among people under 18 has become more of a problem over the last decade or so? Why do you think this is?
We are not experts in the field of drug policy so we can’t really comment. However, from the studies we do know of, illicit drug use amongst young people has remained stable or declined over the past 10 years (especially marijuana use). In fact, it is in the baby boomer generation (people born 1946-1964) where a rise in recreational drug use can be found. Which of course leads to the question: are teachers and the principal subject to this policy?

Want to read more? The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare have a 2010 report on Drug Use in Australia. You can find it here.

Q.      Do you think drug testing at The Southport School is a good idea? Why/why not?
We think it is an expensive and misguided policy. First, which drugs are being tested for (and how will they deal with false-positives)? Second, if they tell students which drugs are being tested for will that encourage students to turn to other, more dangerous drugs? (mariujuana stays in the system for weeks; ‘ice’ etc for no more than days). Third, will the policy be applied fairly? For example, we wonder how the school will deal with pupils who were in a room where someone smoked a joint and they are contaminated by second-hand smoke. We know from roadside drug tests that there is a high error rate and that a person can test positive for second-hand inhalation.  Finally, who will be performing the tests? The teachers? School nurse? A local doctor? How will this impact on the trust between students and those individuals?

We have to ask:  is there an abnormally high rate of drug use amongst Southport School’s students? Are students using drugs at school, on campus, and during school hours? If a teacher finds a student smoking or dealing drugs on school grounds then that is a behaviour issue that can be dealt with, but the use of drugs – where there is no behavioural problem –doesn’t justify swabbing someone’s mouth.

Doesn’t this send a message to the community that students at The Southport School are drug users? How will that impact on their future careers and job applications? Will the school compensate parents or students for false-positives?

Q.      Is this sort of testing an invasion of privacy, given that the majority of boys that attend the school are minors?
Yes. As mentioned above, students have rights too, and one of those is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Any interference with that right must be justified and limited. For example, if the school had reasonable grounds to suspect a student was using drugs (e.g. because of their behaviour in class) they could talk to the student and the parents and perhaps put in place a behaviour agreement where the student submits to regular drug tests.

If this is simply a school’s way of trying to deter, and detect, a small minority of students taking drugs, which would be typical of virtually any school in Australia, then a blanket testing rule is unjustified and is not in the best interest of the children and young adults.

ENDS Civil Liberties Australia comment: read more articles on civil liberties at: http://www.cla.asn.au/

Note: Gadens Lawyers has an interesting item on this, with checklist:
http://www.gadens.com.au/publications/Pages/Alcohol-and-drug-testing-students.aspx

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