A British school has launched a pilot program where students as young as 11 are subjected to random drug tests _ a project that has generated interest in Washington and fed a civil liberties debate on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Abbey School in this southeastern market town is testing students by mouth swab for traces of heroin, cocaine and marijuana. Parents must give permission for the testing, and even then students can refuse.
Former headmaster Peter Walker, who started the program, gave up his school job to become Britain's official ambassador for drug testing. He recently went to Washington to give a presentation to John Walters, director of the White House drug policy office.
Since the program began in January 2005, only one out of nearly 600 students has tested positive for marijuana _ a record Walker attributes to students steering clear of drugs because of the tests.
"I've got nothing to hide,"says Daniel Kelly, 14, who was plucked out of class to have his mouth swabbed and saliva tested for drugs. He doesn't mind the testing, saying that since it applies to most students:"It's not as if I'm the only one."
Critics say the tests violate students'privacy and could open the door to lawsuits. As the program expands, some say children will find their rights to object to the tests eroded.
Rights activists say drug testing in schools is another infringement on privacy in Britain, where closed-circuit television cameras are ubiquitous and lawmakers are debating identity cards that would store biometric data such as fingerprints or iris scans.
Liberty, one of Britain's largest civil rights groups, says testing could wrongly turn students into suspects if they refuse. The American Civil Liberties Union says the tests are imprecise and violate students'basic rights.
"Students have to reveal medical information that would explain why certain test results might come up _ the school is then in possession of private medical information,"said Graham Boyd, an ACLU lawyer."You could have teachers leaving it in a folder, open on a desk _ and it could include information about mental health or birth control prescriptions. That's nobody's business, and especially for someone who is an adolescent."
After planning for years, Walker persuaded a newspaper to fund the pilot project. Jenny James, the current Abbey headmaster, promises to continue the program.
This month, head teachers at just under 100 schools in the county of Kent will consider whether to implement drug testing. After that, the data will be evaluated by the national Department for Education and Skills and Kent's municipal government. Supporters say they will push to expand the program nationally if results show it has been a success.
Walker said 86 percent of the 960 children's parents have agreed to allow their children to be tested. Between 1 percent and 2 percent of parents refused; the others failed to turn in the forms.
Walker said four students initially refused to be tested; in three of those cases, the youths said they were unwilling because they had been at parties where marijuana had been smoked, but that they themselves hadn't smoked it.
"I told them it would be wise to be tested ... When they got their results, they were quite happy to see that they did not test positive,"he said.
Students who refuse testing or test positive must take a counseling session; there is no disciplinary action. Students face punishment if they are caught dealing drugs, are found with drugs or are under the influence of drugs at school.
The White House drug czar says similar tests aren't far off in the United States."This (drug testing) is a public health measure,"Walters told The Associated Press.
Drug testing and the legal issues it raises have been hotly debated in the United States. Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, for example, has said the state constitution provided some limits on drug screening that targets student athletes, among others.
Others, like a high school outside of Abilene, Texas, are taking a tougher stance, implementing programs to test students who drive to school and park on school property. Students who take part in extracurricular activities are also subject to testing.
In Kent, where the Abbey School is located, schools will be able to decide over the next term whether they want similar programs. Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he supports drug testing and has endorsed Walker's efforts to expand it.
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