A Testing Time for the Prime Minister

By Peter Stoker, Director, NDPA
Random drug testing in schools – aggravation, aggravation, aggravation?
When the Prime Minister told the News of the World last Sunday that he supported the principle of random drug tests on school pupils, he probably did not expect the furore that followed. After all, he was saying no more than George Bush had said in his ‘State of the Union’ speech to Congress a month before, and with apparently a much more muted response. Why the difference?

One reason may be that it is easier to kick a man when he’s down, and if the polls are anything to go by, Mr Blair is nearer the floor than George at present. Even despite the WMD farrago and much excitement from the Democratic hustings, Mr Bush continues to float at around a 50% approval rating.

Another defensible explanation is the greater stranglehold that liberal – or frequently libertarian – thinking in Britain has on life in the professions which take a particular interest in drug abuse; social services, counselling and treatment agencies, prevention agencies, police, the media, and – not least – the teachers (and their unions). And that other vitally important group who are not graced with the title of ‘professional’ – the parents.

Yet another, but simpler reason is that the USA schools have been involved in a testing programme for several years now. Not all the results are good, but enough of them are, to allow Mr Bush to celebrate their impact. 400, 000 fewer kids use drugs now, he said, and drug testing can take the credit for that. He has seen the future, and it works, he asserted. The truth is not that simple, or problem-free, but he was not unreasonable in taking encouragement from what successes there were.

In the punch-up which followed Mr Blair’s announcement the police generally kept their collective head down, probably relieved that here was one aspect on which they could avoid the flak. But everyone else got into the fight … each quoting the selection of figures that suited them … the old parliamentary jibe, that some people use statistics as a drunk uses a lamp post; more for support than enlightenment, comes to mind.

Some teachers dismissed the scheme as unworkable, and a waste of academic teaching time. This fear of being tested would also damage trust between pupil and teacher, it was said – but some of those saying it went on to say that they would automatically exclude any pupil found in possession. So, fear of testing, bad; fear of exclusion, not bad. Hmm.

NDPA Director Peter Stoker tried to pick some peace from the conflict by suggesting that the way forward was to examine the successes – and failures – of the American experience, and elsewhere, such as Australia. Stoker’s colleague in the Institute for Global Drug Policy, Dr Ivan van Damme, who works out of Belgium, is currently making an international study of the practice. Another NDPA colleague, Stuart McNeillie, runs Restorative Justice Consultants, specialising in what to do with young people you have found to be errant in some way – quite often including drugs. The indications are that linking Restorative Justice to random testing, as well as nurturing a far better system of drug prevention than most British schools currently bother with, could produce a benefit far greater than the sum of its parts.

There can be pro-active and positive slants to drug testing. In the Houston area of Texas, and with the support of the student bodies, pupils joined a scheme whereby they could volunteer to sign up for a ‘drug-free identity card’. To qualify for the card one had to be willing to undergo a random test at any time. Holders of the card were given substantial discount at major stores and leisure facilities in the region which supported the scheme. The usual safeguards as to proof of identity were applied. Discuss !

Reviewing the various arguments put forward in the past few days, Peter Stoker offers the following guide through
the Random Drug Testing jungle ……

– a good practice if properly administered. A useful addition to the wider array of initiatives. Not a cure-all on its own.

– has disincentive value, like visible speed cameras.

– allows pupils to resist peer pressure to use … “I would, but we have testing in our school”.

– must be part of a wider policy of prevention and intervention – and , we would say, Restorative Justice.

– must not be merely a punitive practice, or an excuse to sack pupils the school would like to be rid of.

– response to discovery of use must be graded to severity of discovery. Not all need ‘treatment’ as Blair implies; a talk may be enough, with involvement of counselling, or just a good talking-to, being other options.

– police should not need to be involved, unless there is discovery of aggravating circumstances … the person is dealing; involved in crime etc.

– ample evidence of success in USA, over 1000 schools using it. Times editorial today (23 February) reported indifferent outcomes – on average – from a Michigan study, but it is likely that outcomes were better in some schools, worse in others, depending on general calibre of prevention in each.

– one US school encountered a hostile parent body, so they suspended the scheme, only to find that use soared; on reintroducing the scheme use was greatly reduced, and parents became strong supporters of it.

– one teaching union, said it would damage trust. Our response is that ‘trust’ based on turning a blind eye is trust not worth having, and the young are attuned to smelling out this kind of hypocrisy. Trust is something you have to earn; not to be cheaply given.

– “Invasion of personal liberty” ? No; read John Stuart Mill ‘On Liberty’ – personal actions which affect the liberty of others are not acceptable.

– “Because cannabis stays in your body longer, youth will switch to cocaine or heroin, simply to beat the test”. This is scare-mongering; no evidence of this in the US experience.

– “It won’t work” – see above.



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