Drug Testing in Schools – Know Your Rights! Shocking revelations!

“The drug problem in South Africa remains very serious with drug usage being twice the world norm in most cases…and we are only dealing with what we know about…this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

South Africa ranks #4 in the world for drug offence cases per 100 000 population – 53,810 per 100,000 people.   (UN, 2002) – Shocking Statistics from The Naked Truth

The Anti Drug Alliance, South Africa, conducted a survey in 2012, capturing data from 57,000 individuals.  The findings of this survey stated, among other things, that:

  • 69% of the survey participants knew that drugs were readily available in their schools
  • 34% of the teenage participants admitted to having taken drugs in the last month
  • Of that same group of teenagers, 27% said they’d used drugs in the last week
  • The drugs that are available in schools are marijuana, cat, tik and cocaine – that’s in order of availability, with dagga being the easiest to get.


In an interesting report one principal recently stated that he had been instrumental in conducting up to 15 drug tests on students during 2013.   He also proudly declared that ‘they’ even test the kids for EPO – performance enhancing drugs, particularly found amongst sport disciplines.

It is commendable that Mr Principal has declared war on drugs in his school.  From the statistics and reports below, one can see only too clearly how negatively the use and availability of drugs in school has impacted on our society, economy, our children – our future.

However, I am interested in the processes followed in these various drug testing procedures.   If a student is under 18 a guardian’s/parent’s consent, and in all likelihood his or her presence –  would be required I should think.   At the very least a same-sex adult would be required – and a designation of delegation document signed as per the laws of our country.   It is, in my opinion, not adequate to say that it forms part of the “School Policy/Application/Acceptance/Admission”.   By the very intrusive and personal nature of the procedure, it has got to comply with the laws of our country, and in accordance with, inter alia, the South African Constitution, Education Act (As Amended – drug testing illegal), Children’s Bill of Rights.   Did the principal conduct these drug tests personally?   Did he appoint a delegation?  I would be interested to know.

The Constitutionality of Section 16A Of the South African Schools Act 84/2008 has been challenged on a number of levels.

In September 2011 both Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi spoke out in support of drug testing in schools. The support and their intentions are clearly well-intended, given the increasing drug use on the grounds of educational institutions.   But can this forced policy actually work?    Theshia Naidoo and Daniel Robelo of the Drug Policy Alliance argue convincingly that the evidence from the USA experience proves that compulsory drug testing in school is potentially harmful.  They say “Tragically, drug testing can actually lead to more risky behaviors.”

South Africa has a clear and compelling interest in preventing teenage drug abuse –a growing problem in our provinces.  In the search for solutions, some have proposed the compulsory drug testing of all pupils in schools.

However, a broad body of research –mainly from the US, where drug testing practices have been extensively researched– indicates that random, suspicion-less drug testing is ineffective, counterproductive, personally invasive and, for many adolescents, dangerous.

This approach is also contrary to the official national policy of the South African Department of Education, which prohibits the use of random drug testing.

South African schools should instead adopt evidence-based policies that combine effective prevention measures, including honest education about the relative harms of various drugs, and rehabilitation for students who suffer from drug dependency problems.

A GROUND-BREAKING anti-doping initiative, which would have seen pupils randomly tested for steroids, has been stalled by legal problems.
The Schools Testing Protocol, which was intended to start on 30 April 2013 and would have allowed schools to initiate unscheduled tests on pupils suspected of doping, was set aside.  (Note:  There has to be a reasonable suspicion that a particular learner was doping).  Aimed at eradicating the escalating steroid and drug use amongst teens, the tests would have been conducted by the SA Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAIDS).  However, SAIDS CE Khalid Galant said certain aspects needed to be tweaked before the protocol could be launched, as a number of legal differences had also come up between the intended protocol and the South African Schools Act.   He said  it had run into a legal barrier.  “We found out that, by law, the tool (lab) used for testing the learners has to be at the school.”   SAIDS makes use of a laboratory based in Bloemfontein that is just one of 32 in the world equipped to properly test suspected dopers.

Proponents of random drug testing in schools believe that it prevents teen substance use by alerting school officials and parents to drug use at an early stage, when interventions for at-risk students are more likely to succeed. They argue that testing provides students with an excuse to say no to drugs and resist peer pressure.  According to the US Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP), many US schools have implemented random student drug testing “to promote a healthy learning environment, and to shield young people’s developing minds and bodies from dangerous and addictive substances – like marijuana.”

Some supporters of the practice, notably the ONDCP, even call the practice of random drug testing a “silver bullet” in the fight against drug abuse. Unfortunately, the reality is that random drug testing fails to achieve these laudable goals.   Scientific research indicates that drug testing policies are ineffective and employ tactics that violate well-established principles of how educators and parents can best promote healthy choices among adolescents, particularly those identified as “at-risk.”

Where random, suspicion-less drug testing has been implemented, it proves to be at best costly and futile, (Upwards of R3400 -R4500 – possibly even higher –  per test, depending on the nature of the test, according to reports) and at worst potentially harmful.   Evidence demonstrates that random drug testing programs have little to no impact on student drug use or other risky behaviors. Virtually all of the research conducted to-date in USA concludes that suspicion-less drug testing does not lower drug use.

Official South African school policy unequivocally acknowledges this research, stating, “There is no empirical evidence or justification for routine random testing of learners to reduce usage.”   The Department of Education required that testing only be employed when there is suspicion of drug use – and even then under narrow circumstances:

Testing must be implemented as part of a structured intervention or relapse prevention programming in an environment that is committed to safeguarding personal rights relating to privacy, dignity and bodily integrity according to school policy, medical treatment procedures and ethical guidelines.

Contrary to this clear national policy, random student drug testing violates students’ bodily integrity and is inherently invasive of their privacy rights. Indeed, the South African Department of Education has banned compulsory drug testing in schools for just this reason, stating “By its very nature, drug testing is an invasion of privacy and may infringe the constitutional and personal rights of learners. It should therefore not be the first point of intervention … ”

Many testing programs require pupils to urinate while being monitored and to disclose any prescription medications. These practices can have the unintended consequence of forcing students to reveal to school officials that they are being treated for sexually transmitted diseases, mental health issues or other illnesses, thus intruding into their medical privacy.

Tragically, drug testing can actually lead to more risky behaviors.  Students inclined towards drug experimentation or peer pressure may switch to drugs that are less likely to be detected but far more dangerous, such as methamphetamine.    Or students may simply use substances, like alcohol or inhalants, which are not screened for in most drug tests but which may pose even greater health risks than the drugs the tests were designed to detect. For this reason, the leading U.S. experts in adolescent health – including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry – have increasingly opposed calls for such testing programs.

Mandatory drug testing disrupts and impacts on the delicate balance of trust and honesty that educators ought to try to establish with their students. Rather than being seen as advisors and counselors, school officials are cast as “drug enforcers”.

In 2008 The Ministry of Education in South Africa considered a safe and disciplined learning environment one of the critical elements to the successful delivery of quality education and recognized the role played by substance abuse in undermining this.  Scientific evidence and extensive research indicates that school communities are particularly vulnerable and substance abuse among learners is on the increase in rural, urban, primary,  secondary and public and independent schools.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 provides for the right to privacy for everyone which includes the right not to have:

a) their person or home searched;

b) their property searched;

c) their possessions seized; or

d) the privacy of their communication infringed.

De Jure ,  when conducting comparative studies between US and SA Schools produced n extensive and substantive report, which includes the rights of a student and his/her parent in terms of the Constitution of our country, and touches on the Children’s Bill of Rights.

The right to privacy affords a greater intensity of protection to personal activities within the sanctum of the home. Where individuals engage in communal activities, such as education, the intensity of this protection diminishes.  In Mistry v Interim Medical Council of South Africa the Constitutional Court stressed that the more public an undertaking, the more attenuated would any corresponding claim to privacy be in respect of an activity.

Furthermore, the right to privacy, like all rights, is not absolute. In some instances, it is reasonable and justifiable for society to intrude into the personal and private realm of the individual.  If the school, therefore, wishes to search learners periodically in order to prevent dangerous weapons or contraband being brought onto the school premises, it must do so in terms of legislation.

The South African Schools Act, (SASA) declares all schools as drug free zones.  SASA clearly states that no person may bring a dangerous object or illegal drug onto school premises or have such object or drug in his or her possession on school premises or during any school activity.

The principal or his or her delegate may, at random, search any group of learners, or the property of a group of learners, for any dangerous object or illegal drug, if a fair and “reasonable suspicion” has been established. By their very nature, searches and drug testing are an invasion of privacy and may infringe the constitutional and personal rights of learners and it should therefore not be the first point of intervention.

In SA there is no empirical evidence for the justification yet for routine random testing of learners, to reduce drug usage.    In terms of SASA, drug testing may only be done where there is “reasonable suspicion” that a learner is using drugs.  Testing must be implemented as part of a structured intervention or relapse prevention programme in an environment that is committed to safeguarding personal rights relating to privacy, dignity, and bodily integrity according to school policy, medical/treatment procedures, and ethical guidelines.

In short, random student drug testing fails to combat adolescent drug use. Scientific research does not support its efficacy. Testing undermines trust in school officials and teachers and creates a negative school environment. It is invasive of teenage students’ bodily privacy and may even provoke oppositional behavior in students who want to “beat” the test.

Testing is expensive, technically complex and likely fraught with problems of accuracy and reliability.

As concerned parents, we can understand the motivation behind those who support random student drug testing.  However, in practice, research proves that it makes children and schools less safe, not safer.

References and Further Reading:

  1. United States Office of National Drug Control Policy Press Release, 6/4/2008.  
  2. The National Policy on the Management of Substance Abuse in Public and Independent Schools and Further Education and Training Institutions was published in Government Gazette 24172 on 13 December 2002.  
  3. http://www.dejure.up.ac.za/index.php/volumes/46-vol-1-2013/163-article-7.html
  4. http://www.peherald.com/news/article/14669
  5. IOL – Drugs in School
  6. Schools in Drugs War
  7. PMG Drugs in Schools/Sport
  8. Addiction rate Climbs Amongst school kids – Statistics
  9. Children’s Bill of Rights
  10. Download Family/Children’s ACT & FAQ

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