The government wants random drugs tests in schools. Here, the mother of a girl who tested positive for cannabis tells why such tests can be unfair, degrading and educationally ruinous.
NEWS OF the Government’s plans for random drugs testing in schools has been greeted with dismay in our household. For six years ago, a term before she was due to sit her GCSEs, our daughter Connie was nearly lost to the education system thanks to just such an aggressive drugs policy. The private London day school she attended gave her a urine test - without my husband’s or my permission. The school had recently introduced the test as part of its anti-drugs policy, but had not tried it out before.
Even though there was no evidence that she had taken any drugs during school time, Connie was scapegoated as a warning to others. The consequences for her were horribly damaging.
Connie was 15 and had never been in any trouble at school. We suspected that, like most teenagers, she was a weekend spliff-smoker. As a social worker I am probably more aware than most of what drugs can do to people’s lives, and like any responsible parents we had warned our daughter of the dangers of drugs use. On the day in question Connie and her friend left the school grounds at lunchtime, which was against the rules, because they had heard that a local boy was going to be outside distributing flyers for a gig that weekend.
The boy was apparently known as a drugs user, and when a teacher spotted the girls talking to this boy and smoking, she challenged them. Connie said that I was dropping off her viola for her and that they had come outside to wait for me. But the teacher frogmarched them to the headmaster’s office and said that she had seen the girls with a suspicious person and that it looked as though they were “trading”.
The girls were taken to separate rooms, each with a senior member of staff, and their clothes and bags were searched. Nothing was found on them: no money, no dope. By this time they were apparently crying and asking for their parents, but although I was at home that day nobody contacted me. When the headmaster cross-examined Connie she confessed immediately that she had told a lie - that she hadn’t gone out to meet me at all, but had gone outside to smoke a cigarette and to pick up the flyers.
Just before half past three that afternoon the head called me and said he needed my permission for the urine test. As it transpired, the test had already taken place. And when I arrived at the school to collect my daughter and discovered I had been duped (the school subsequently claimed they had been unable to contact me) I was absolutely furious. In the previous school year, drugs had been found on a group of pupils on a school trip and nobody had been tested. Yet here was my daughter, who had not been found with drugs, being tested without our consent. It seemed a gross and unfair overreaction. Arguably it was also illegal.
The test results took about two weeks to come back. Fortunately for the school, Connie and her friend failed it. We might well have sued if it had been otherwise. As it was, we were not overly surprised: cannabis can stay in your system for as long as 90 days in extreme cases and when Connie told us she had smoked cannabis at a party a few days before the events at school, we believed her. Had evidence of drugs been found on her at school we would have supported an appropriate sanction. But with no further evidence, it should have been the end of the matter.
The head, however, took the view that the school had to take a stand on pupils’ weekend and holiday habits. He seemed set on making an example of the girls. He made us agree to submit Connie to two further tests, and said that she wouldn’t be able to sit her GCSEs if there was further evidence of drugs use.
We should have stood our ground, but with exams coming up the following term we had no choice but to accept the head’s conditions. - very reluctantly. Had we not done so, he would have expelled her, she would have had to postpone her GCSEs for a year and I honestly think that we would never have got her back into the system. Having been doubted, disbelieved and labelled, she would have given up. So Connie had to prepare for her GCSEs knowing that she also faced two further urine tests, which - because of the way cannabis remains in the system - she could still fail even if she never touched the drug again. She felt very angry and very unjustly treated, not least because there were people known to be dealing at school, but nobody was doing anything about them.
At one meeting the deputy head told us that he thought 60 per cent of senior pupils had used cannabis at some time. Connie failed the second test but passed the third one. It was a humiliating procedure which involved a teacher being present and a nurse testing the temperature of the urine to ensure that it was a genuine sample.
A lot of the staff disagreed with the way our daughter was treated, and I remember one coming to see us and saying that he wanted no part in what the school was doing. The head insisted that the matter was private, but of course word got out and the Chinese whispers started. Having never dealt drugs in her life, Connie had people coming up to her in school and trying to buy drugs. The school offered her no support, and she became very disillusioned by the unfair public disgrace. She knew she would have to leave the school for A levels - we couldn’t keep her on after this - but she couldn’t imagine where she would go. She sank to a low ebb. Her confidence was destroyed and her motivation undermined. For a teenager, self-esteem is everything and hers was in shreds.
Amazingly, she made it to all her exams and passed all but one. She went on to sit her A levels at a sixth-form college and was lucky enough to meet an inspiring teacher who turned her life around for her. She is doing her MA next year. Her friend has been less fortunate and had more difficulty in moving on. I often wonder how different it might have been for Connie if I had been a single parent struggling with other problems and unable to buy her a fresh start for her A levels elsewhere.
Tony Blair is pulling this scheme out of a hat without thinking what it will do to teachers, many of whom will not want to participate in random drugs testing, and to children who will be unfairly stigmatised and who will, as a consequence, be lost to the education system for ever. And what of alcohol, Ecstasy, heroin and cocaine? Alcohol does not linger in the system as cannabis does, so children worrying about being tested at school have plenty of more harmful alternatives that they can explore without fear of discovery.
I told my daughter’s school at the time that if they wanted to take positive action against drugs, they ought to sweep the whole year - test everyone anonymously, publicise the results, tell the parents and then talk to the children about the dangers of drug-taking. They never did.
After Connie left, I heard that the headmaster had stood up in assembly and told the school that the pupils who had been drugs-tested had failed their GCSEs. Of course it wasn’t true - not in Connie’s case, anyway.
But then none of it was ever true. A lot of people felt that the situation was handled very badly, and while my daughter’s peer group was at the school there was no further random drugs testing.