Australian experts warn any attempt at introducing drug testing in schools could backfire. Such a move could create mistrust and stigmatization. The targeted community could become alienated too.
Alternative strategies aimed at winning the confidence of the student population should be thought of, they say.
In the backdrop of increasing drug abuse among the youth, the Australian National Council on Drugs had sought to find out whether introduction of drug testing in schools could help combat the problem.
No, says the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) at Flinders University that went into the issue in depth.
In their report, Drug Testing in Schools - evidence, impacts and alternatives
, the NCETA authors also raised concerns about the accuracy of available testing technology, and about the potential of testing regimes to undermine child-school and parent-child relations.
The report's principal author and director of the NCETA Ann Roche said, "One qualitative study we examined showed that whilst the majority of students were undisturbed by the drug testing experience, in fact more than a quarter were either distressed or angered."
"The accuracy of tests was another issue we looked at carefully. Certainly we had concerns about false positive readings. Falsely accusing a child of illicit drug use could obviously have negative legal and social impact, to say nothing of potential psychological damage."
From a legal and ethical standpoint, Professor Roche said it was improbable that children could be tested for drugs without their parents' consent. She said that Australia's legal perspective placed a greater weight on the rights of the child than, for instance, in the US and affords children greater rights to privacy and protection from interference.
Professor Roche further said the report had looked deeply at the issue of drug testing as a deterrent, but that available evidence was limited to the US.
"There were no studies that provided appropriate controls or data to adequately determine whether changes in the number of students who tested positive for drugs could be linked to a drug testing program," Professor Roche said.
"In short, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of drug testing."
The report included consultations with professionals in the field. Professor Roche said written submissions indicated that 61 per cent were not in favour of drug detection and screening, and that overall the disadvantages of drug detection and screening in schools were seen to outweigh any potential advantages.
A community survey brought an even stronger response, with 71 per cent either opposed or strongly opposed to drug testing in schools, and 51 per cent seeing no advantages.
Ninety six per cent said mistrust between students and school would be the result, and 72 per cent said students with drug problems would be stigmatised as a result.
"These figures show the real level of concern," Professor Roche said.
NCETA also calculated the cost to to taxpayers of introducing drug testing in Australian schools to be at least $355 million for saliva tests or $302 million for urine tests for nationwide drug testing of each child once yearly. Annual testing of a random 10 per cent of the national school population three times yearly would cost $110 million for saliva tests or $91 million for urine tests.
In the circumstances what could be the options before the policy makers?
Answers Roche, "When it comes to alternatives, there are three very different but complementary approaches in which schools can implement evidence-based strategies to prevent drug related problems. They are supporting and developing connectedness between children and their school, providing targeted early and brief interventions for high risk students and offering family strengthening interventions."