Photo: Marilyn Bernard/INLSA

Substance abuse is ravaging our rural and urban schools. It is leaving a path of destruction – a human and financial burden, a public health and safety crisis – and its destruction is staggering.

It is tearing families apart. It is a heavy burden on our communities and justice and healthcare systems. 

That is why we must fight this epidemic through drug testing in our schools, starting with Grade 7. It is a pity some people doubt whether drug testing has a place in our schools. It does.

Just as tuberculosis tests identify children who are sick and can spread a dangerous disease, drug testing helps identify children who have a problem with drugs. When we prevent a pupil from using drugs, it means he or she is not able to pass the habit to peers. 

Also, for years, psychologists and counsellors have advised us that if we can prevent children from using drugs in their teens, then they are far less likely to go on and use drugs later in life. 

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on random drug testing. On radio talk shows and at community meetings, opponents say drug testing, particularly of high school pupils involved in extracurricular activities, is not a productive means of helping them face their drug problems; thus random drug tests would be useless.

Some say that even if a pupil tests positive, pressuring him or her would only complicate the problem, which could lead to further drug abuse.

Others say that if a pupils drug problem was made public, this would be harmful to the pupil and would not be a deterrent. 

They insist that the pupil has to acknowledge the addiction before volunteering for being tested and seeking help. Only then can a teacher’s or coach’s actions be beneficial to that pupil’s problem.

There are those who say random drug testing is not justifiable in any situation. They argue that even though drugs are corrupting many aspects of our children’s lives and future, the privacy of our children is protected by the constitution and should be respected by all. 

Indeed, opponents of pupil drug testing argue testing in school does not get to the root of addiction and overdoses, and that its effectiveness is inconclusive. 

Some say random drug testing can never be justified as the school would be infringing on a pupil’s constitutional rights. They add that random testing wouldn’t be fair to those who don’t abuse drugs. 

The question is raised: Why not test everyone? Someone who might need the rehabilitative help might otherwise be lost to their ongoing problem.

There are those who believe random drug testing should not be up to our teachers, but the police. Schools should be a place where pupils can learn in a peaceful atmosphere, not a place where they’re subjected to random drug tests.

I am one of those who believe that drug testing could be a very effective method for getting help to drug abusers. 

I know that if regular and serious drug testing is to be used in schools, great caution should be taken. 

I understand that school-age youths are at a very crucial point in their lives, and a permanent blemish on their records could cause irreparable damage.

Therefore, if random drug testing was to be rigorously implemented in schools, all results should be kept in the utmost confidence.

Drug testing for pupils is justified when the results are kept confidential, thereby showing that the best interests of the individual are being considered. 

An early start means a better chance at living a normal, drug-free adult life.

In testing pupils for drug abuse, we have to be fair to everyone, so that random testing should be an effective way of identifying and helping those with drug problems.

I believe that random drug testing is a necessary and very effective way of identifying those pupils with drug problems. It is perfectly justified if we expect to save our young people. 

Parents and teachers need to become more drug-aware. The knowledge could save lives. 

Supporters of random drug testing say that for those who test positive it could be a start to new choices and rehabilitation. Then, in the end, schools can become better places by helping the pupils who are using, and preventing those who are selling drugs at schools.

Here is what the Department of Basic Education says you can do to help your child and pupil say “No” to drugs:

l Nurture your children.

l Set rules (have house rules).

Monitor their compliance to the rules. 

l Apply appropriate discipline such as acknowledging and rewarding children’s achievements and positive behaviour.

Parents should also check for warning signs of drug use.

These might include: 

l Changes in levels of activity, including periods of tiredness or periods of hyperactivity, lack of co-ordination, staggering or slow movements, clumsiness and falling.

l Inaudible or confused speech, forgetting thoughts and ideas, and illogical conversations.

l Changes in physical appearance such as drastic changes in style of clothing, being less concerned about appearance, which may become careless and untidy.

l Sudden aggressive and violent behaviour, unexplained outbursts of anger, unexplained restlessness, irritability and destructive behaviour, such as punching walls, swearing, and fighting.

l Lack of motivation, sudden loss of interest in things that one previously enjoyed, such as hobbies or sport.

l Severe mood alterations or mood swings: sudden excitement to sudden feelings of depression, despondency and hopelessness.

l Alternation in thought patterns, such as strange and weird thinking, hallucinations, abnormal fears, suspiciousness, depressive patterns and suicidal thoughts.

I am aware that no one approach will solve the teen substance use problem.

I agree that we need comprehensive, community efforts that focus on drug education, provide alternative outlets for teen activities, promote improved parent-child communication, and encourage greater acceptance by youth of responsibility for their actions.

I agree that we need community partnerships involving schools, law enforcement, religious organisations, community organisations, and the media to articulate the dangers of substance abuse. 

I believe that communities and schools can counter teen substance use.

Success depends on developing a clear plan and implementing the plan uniformly, with full community support to make random drug testing a deterrent that works. 

Lesufi is Gauteng MEC for Education