Pubdate: Mon, 25 Feb 2008
Source: Times, The (South Africa)
Copyright: 2008 The Times
Author: Sashni Pather


Amendment To Education Act Allows Random Testing Of Pupils To Curb

There are concerns that innocent pupils could fall foul of a new law
that allows random drug testing at public schools.

Under the new Education Laws Amendment Act, which was passed in
December, a school principal can "under reasonable suspicion" test and
search pupils for drugs.

Though the law is aimed at curbing substance abuse among pupils, there
is concern that the testing might be compromised.

Sarah Fisher, executive director of Smart (Substance Misuse Advocacy
Research and Training) said the drug tests were similar to pregnancy
tests. She said urine tests were only for screening and could not be
relied on as an indicator of whether a pupil was a consistent
substance abuser.

"It's a diagnostic tool. It doesn't tell you how often the pupil is
taking drugs, or if a pupil is taking medication after being at the
dentist, this [legitimate medication] could also show up in his urine
sample and be mistaken for substance abuse."

Fisher consulted former education minister Kader Asmal on the issue.
Asmal rejected the amendment to the act as unconstitutional.

A spokesman for the national education department, Lunga Ngqengelele,
said: "There will be no roll-out [of random drug testing] as such, but
principals can order that tests be done."

But Fisher pointed out that schools which allow tests could face legal

"Having a suspicion is fine, but what happens if you are wrong? That
means legal action can be taken against the school. But what if you
are right? What do you do with these children who have this drug problem?"

Fisher said more intensive tests would have to be done in pathology
labs as a follow-up to the screening and this would be costly.

"The urine sample is the most accepted method, but there also needs to
be a very secure and trusted chain from the minute the test is taken
up until it is processed."

Constitutional law professor George Devenish said such tests would not
be unconstitutional.

He explained: "All rights are limited and few are absolute. The right
to privacy is not absolute and I don't see a problem with these tests,
provided they are done in a reasonable, consistent and fair way."

According to Devenish, random drug testing violates certain aspects of
privacy, but "one has to establish whether it is a justifiable
limitation of that right. This law was passed because drug abuse is
obviously a major concern in our schools and steps have to be taken to
protect the community and individuals at large".

Daphne Bradbury, former head of the Institute for Drug-free Sport and
a recognised expert in drug-testing policy, said this was a strong
message from the government to the country's youth to clean up its

But she said: 'The critical factors in a drug-testing programme are
the quality and reliability of the equipment, and the integrity and
independence of the process."

Bradbury believes that when schools have access to suitable and
affordable testing equipment, and have developed and documented
best-practice testing procedures and guidelines, testing would be
relatively simple and inexpensive.

"With drug dealers targeting younger and younger children as long-term
customers, and with drug-related violence and crime spiralling out of
control in schools across the country, this amendment deserves the
support of the public," Bradbury said.

Johan Lobban, head of the Independent Schools Association of SA, which
represents 630 private schools, said: "With the consent of parents,
private schools have for a while now been conducting these tests on
pupils when there is a suspicion that they are taking drugs."

Bradbury said that the testing could be effective in identifying
children with drug problems.

"Testing pinpoints many of the drug abusers because several of the
more popular drugs stay in the body for a considerable time and will
show up in urine sample several days or even weeks later."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek