Thursday, 14 November 2002
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. U. Burke: I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this urgent matter. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish her every success with her portfolio which is becoming more difficult by the day. I am sure the tasks which lie ahead of her will be dealt with fairly and efficiently.
The announcement last week that two fee-paying schools in Dublin are operating mandatory drug testing of students causes concern in some quarters. It is vital that the Minister for Education and Science and his Department indicate as soon as possible the strategy and intention of the Department in relation to this new departure.
It is important that all the partners in education be involved in this matter. While it has been announced initially as an initiative by two fee-paying schools, as many as 15 others schools are to follow in the near future. It is time the Department indicated if it is in agreement with the procedures in the two schools and if it intends to be proactive in addressing what has happened. The boards of management, principals, staff, students and parents are all involved. Parents have indicated their support for the initiative already declared in these two schools. An integral part of the education process should involve emphasising awareness of the difficulties in respect of drug taking.
Many difficulties could arise from this initiative. Will the procedures followed be in line with current departmental rules and regulations? Is the Minister confident that we have the resources and professional personnel to cater for circumstances in which drug testing identifies a particular student or a number of students in order to give them the necessary counselling and provide the other backup services required?
Difficulties arise regarding the action to be taken after the process of counselling and support if there is further drug taking and a student has to be expelled. Where does such a student go? I hope this will not happen, despite the fact that there are indications from various reports and media that there are problems in many schools in this regard. The original report highlighted that a random test would be introduced in a Dublin school for which there have been many calls. Likewise, there were questions on the other side of the argument asking if we were impinging on freedom and personal rights by going down that road.
I know it is difficult for all the partners involved in education, particularly the Minister of State and the Department, to take a line on the issue that we know is safe and meets with the satisfaction of all the partners involved. I hope the Minister of State will indicate to us that she has a strategy in place in the Department that will lead to the resolution of a problem that seems to be growing.
The first demand and the necessary approach are that we educate for prevention in the first instance and hope we can resolve problems such as those to which I have referred. That an outside agency is being contracted – that might be the appropriate word – to provide this service for schools frightens me. The danger is that, once a student has been identified, there may be a downside to his or her future in the education system.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Miss de Valera): I thank the Senator for his kind remarks. We did have a number of jousts during the years and I am sure we will continue to do so. I thank him for giving me the opportunity of outlining to the House the position on this matter because it is one of grave concern. It is worth highlighting the fact that the schools referred to by the Senator have been reported as denying that they operate a mandatory drug testing policy and also quite annoyed at the way in which their policies on substance abuse have been portrayed in the media.
The Government's national drugs strategy, 2001-08, sets out a detailed programme of action to be implemented by the Department and agencies to tackle the problem. The strategy highlights the important contribution schools can make in the area of education and prevention and requires them to have substance use policies in place. In addition, An Agreed Programme for Government states new guidelines will be issued to all schools on the development of a drugs policy. I am pleased to inform the Senator that the guidelines have recently been issued under the title, Guidelines for Developing a School Substance Use Policy. These guidelines clearly articulate the Department's recommendations on how schools should deal with this issue.
The guidelines set out the process and the main elements to be considered in the development of substance use policies by schools. The central objective of a school's substance use policy should be the welfare, care and protection of every young person in line with the Education Act, 1998, and the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000. The policy should address both education concerning alcohol, tobacco and drugs and the procedures for managing incidents relating to these substances.
The guidelines will assist schools in developing a substance use policy by following a step-by-step approach involving a whole-school-community model. This will involve the participation of management, principal, teachers, parents, guardians, students, the local community and other relevant groups.
Individual schools should respond to incidents involving alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse in a planned and considered way. As set out in the Education Act, 1998, the board of management of a school is responsible for the education provided at the school. In that regard, the question of drug testing would have to be addressed by the board in the context of the particular school's circumstances and in accordance with the guidelines to which I have referred.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity of outlining the position to the House. I could arrange for a copy of the guidelines to be sent to directly to the Senator, which will answer and clarify any other questions he might have with regard to the issue.
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