The National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) at Flinders University has recommended against introducing a national testing program of drug testing in schools, citing an international lack of evidence of the benefits and effectiveness of such programs.
In a new report, Drug Testing in Schools – evidence, impacts and alternatives, commissioned by the Australian National Council on Drugs, 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.
NCETA calculated the cost to to taxpayers of introducing drug testing into 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.
The principal author, NCETA Director Professor Ann Roche (pictured), 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.”
In addition to the lack of evidence of the benefits and effectiveness of testing, Professor Roche warned that its introduction into Australian schools would create mistrust and stigmatisation, leading directly to students becoming disengaged from the education system.
“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,” she said.
“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 is improbable that children could be tested for drugs without their parents’ consent. She said that Australia’s legal perspective places a greater weight on the rights of the child than, for instance, the US and affords children greater rights to privacy and protection from interference.
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.
“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.”