Drug testing in schools could stigmatise children who are caught or lead them to drop out of school and use harder drugs‚ experts warn.
Gauteng Education MEC Department Panyaza Lesufi last week suggested that there needed to be mandatory drug testing of pupils entering high school in response to growing violence‚ use of drugs and alcohol at schools and threats against teachers.
His spokesman‚ Steve Mabona‚ said children on drugs needed support‚ but it was against the law to test a person for drugs without reasonable suspicion of drug use. So a blanket policy of testing all Grade 8 pupils would be illegal.
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Shaun Shelly‚ the policy‚ advocacy and human rights manager at the TB/HIV Care Association‚ said surveys showed that pupils in areas such as the Cape Flats in Cape Town did not use tik and other hard drugs‚ but if expelled or suspended for dagga use‚ they often did not return to school and then switched from dagga to harder drugs such as tik or nyaope.
“Young children using drugs does not represent a drug problem‚ it represents a parenting and societal problem and drug use is often the result of a highly traumatic life.
“Drug testing them or identifying them as drug users adds to the trauma and if expelled or suspended‚ [this] is likely to further increase the trauma‚ exclusion‚ and effectively takes away some of the protective factors school and an education have‚” Shelley said.
Hope House is an NGO that provides counselling and life skills classes at schools in Cape Town to children found with drugs. The programme works to ensure pupils are not suspended. Hope House founder Judy Strickland said a seven-day suspension for drug use often encouraged further use as the child had nothing to do at home.
“There is often nobody at home to supervise and drug use increases. Often [the child] never returns to school.
“The counselling programme’s goal is to keep them in school. Life skills are not instinctive and need to be taught.”
The Hope House programme tests students for drug use near the end of 12 weeks at an unexpected time and finds 75% of them are not on drugs anymore.
Mabona said the Gauteng education department’s suggestion for a drug testing policy was not to stigmatise pupils but to plan an effective intervention.
Shelly said: “Rather than drug tests‚ schools should identify children who are struggling in any way‚ find out about what aspects of their lives are causing them to struggle or act inappropriately‚ and address these issues. Confrontation and punitive approaches never work and cause further harm in adults. In children they can effectively sentence someone to a life of poverty‚ exclusion and recidivism.”