The information requested was in relation to different methods of drug testing and testing in certain school contexts.  

Our paper looked into the practical, legal and ethical considerations surrounding drug testing. This article aims to provide specific insight on:

  • drug testing student athletes;
  • drug testing using hair follicle method; and
  • general, further information on the key considerations surrounding student drug testing.  

Drug Testing Student Athletes

There has been interest in the concept of drug testing only student athletes, for example, all rugby players or any student that participates in sport as an extra-curricular activity.  

The purpose of testing this particular group of students would be to either:

  • detect anabolic steroids or performance enhancing drugs; or
  • illicit drugs.  

The aim would be that the consequences that coincide with a positive test would act as a deterrent to drug use.  

It is difficult to find reported cases where Australian schools have used drug testing on a whole sporting team or on students that participate in extra-curricular sport, however, it has been practiced in the United States of America (USA).  

A study conducted in the USA called the Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification (SATURN) study, was conducted to test the deterrent effects of drug and alcohol testing among high school student athletes.  

The SATURN study involved two (2) Oregon high schools, one with drug testing and one without. The results of this study found that the number of student athletes reporting drug use reduced in the school that conducted drug tests and in the school that did not conduct drug test this number increased.  

There was caution surrounding results of the SATURN study. Even though random drug testing reduced drug use, the worsening of risk factors and small sample size suggest that the results were biased. It was found that to confirm the results a larger long-term study was required.  

The effect that drug testing has on deterring student athletes is uncertain, however, it is still practiced in American schools. While the extent that student athletes have been tested in Australian schools is unknown, there are some reported cases where student athletes have been tested for anabolic steroids and performance enhancing drugs.  

The Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) targeted schoolboy rowers at an interschool regatta in 2007. Students from a Sydney school were stripped naked and had to provide urine samples to ASADA without parental consent.

Weeks later ASADA attended the Sydney Head of the River but were refused permission to test many of the students participating.  

It was reported that the headmaster of the School involved said that results of the tests could be flawed as many students were on medication, and that using treatments for ADHD and asthma could trigger a positive test.  

According to the CEO of Rowing NSW, this was at that time the first time students were tested by ASADA at a schools only event.  

ASADA claim that they have the right to test any students who play sport that is covered by an anti-doping policy. Although drug testing by ASADA has been reported, there are certain legal and ethical considerations that would apply if testing of student athletes was undertaken by a school.1  

Schools should be aware that by only drug testing certain students (i.e. because they participate in sport) this could be seen as biased. By testing only students that participate in sport, it may be that the decision to drug test is not providing a safe and secure environment for all students, but is a targeted measure for those who participate in sport, and not enacting a holistic duty of care.  

Hair Follicle Method

Hair testing is another method that can be used to detect the presence of drugs in a person. While it is not commonly used to drug test a large group, it is a very popular method due to its validity.  

Hair testing is often used in child protection cases, as hair can become contaminated by passive drug use and a child would test positive if it were exposed to their parents drug use. It is also used in other discrete circumstances, for example, employment and family situations.  

Hair testing provides an indicator of drug use at the time the hair was grown; which allows a longer window of detection.  The length of the hair being analysed will determine the window in which drug use would be detected; generally it is between 60-90 days.

Hair testing is not commonly used in schools. This is because:

  • hair testing is not a point of collection test (POCT); and
  • cost.  

The reason for drug testing students will determine what type of testing is appropriate.  

Hair testing would not be an appropriate method if a school intended to randomly drug test a large number of students a number of times a year. However, if a student had already tested positive for illicit drug, was on probation and a condition of probation was monthly drug testing, hair testing may be appropriate due to the validity of its results and because it is less invasive than other types of drug testing.  

Because hair testing is not a POCT (such as urine or saliva testing) it would be difficult to administer tests to a large number of students. POCT is commonly used in schools as it allows for onsite testing. POCT provides an initial result of whether a student tests positive; if they do further laboratory testing is required. This reduces the cost for schools as it is only when a student tests positive to a POCT that the cost of laboratory testing incurred.  

Key Considerations

If a school is considering implementing any type of drug testing to reduce student drug use there are a number of factors that should be considered.  

Schools should consider:

  • reviewing current drug use policies that are in place including whether they are effective and/or being enforced properly;
  • be aware that schools owe a non-delegable duty of care to students and that a decision to implement drug testing should be to provide a safe and secure environment;
  • ensure that consent is gained from both parent and student before testing is administered;
  • be aware that four (4) articles from the Convention on the Rights of the Child may come under threat if students are drug tested; and
  • that there are a number of practical considerations that surround drug testing; cost, administration, confidentiality, validity and the issues associated with actual enforcement of a drug testing policy.