The Punjab provincial education minister has said the Punjab government will be carrying out tests in schools. That in itself sounds fine – except these tests are not the kind children usually take in classrooms. The education minister told a media conference on Tuesday that mandatory drug testing would take place at all schools, both in the public and the private sectors, to test for substance abuse and that reports would be shared with parents.
This decision would seem to stem from reports published in sections of the media over the past months about the widespread use of drugs in schools. One report had suggested that the majority of schoolgoing children in Islamabad used drugs. This is somewhat difficult to believe. And the reports were later questioned, and some of the details clarified. The education minister has also singled out the substance crystal meth, colloquially known as Ice as one of the drugs for which testing would be carried out. Ice is a chemically produced substance and usually falls in price ranges that would effectively put it out of reach of most children and teenagers in the country.
It is no doubt quite possible that there is some substance abuse in educational institutions, and that there may even be a drug problem. However, the policy the Punjab government says it will follow raises a number of key questions. One of these pertains to privacy and the testing of minors without the consent of their parents. In developed countries, in all matters relating to drug use, individual privacy is highly protected as a basic right. The need for sensitivity is also recognised, as should be the case. We have also not been informed about which age groups are to be covered. We assume primary schools would be left out of the process. More than testing, there is an enormous need to educate children and their parents about the dangers of using substances of various kinds including tobacco. We would also hope that there are plans to effectively target drug dealers and drug pushers. There is an enormous need for clarity on the process described by the minister which he has said would be undertaken with the help of the health ministry and the Anti-Narcotics Force. To start with, all stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers and school heads need to be involved in the process of determining how best to tackle any drug use issues and to ensure there is no violation of the rights of families and children.