Random drug testing of students will make minors ‘open targets’

Jodesz Gavilan

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Random drug testing of students will make minors ‘open targets’
With the rising number of minors killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, human rights groups are worried about the implementation of mandatory random drug tests among high school students


  • Human rights groups denounce the implementation of the mandatory random drug testing among high school students as it will put them in a vulnerable position in Duterte’s war on drugs.
  • As of July 2017, 54 minors have been killed, adding to the fear of parents and advocates that this number will increase if the Department of Education (DepEd) goes through with its plan. 
  • DepEd is urged to focus on preventive education, identifying and addressing factors why minors turn to illegal drugs, instead of focusing on drug tests, which foreign studies have found, do not curb substance abuse.

MANILA, Philippines – Students as young as 13 years old may soon find themselves taking a drug test as part of the government’s intensified campaign against illegal drugs. 

As ordered by the Department of Education (DepEd), the mandatory random drug test among students in both public and private high school is set to begin school year 2017-2018. 

But many human rights organizations, such as the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center (CLRDC), have condemned this plan as it will put minors in a very vulnerable position in President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. 

“We see it as making the students open targets,” CLRDC executive director Rowena Legaspi told Rappler on Wednesday, August 30. “Alam naman natin na kapag na-identify ka as a drug user, kahit suspect ka pa lamang, ay nagiging biktima ka na agad.” (We know that once you are identified as a drug user, even if you’re still a suspect, you end up being a victim.)

The plan to test students for drug use is not new. In 2003, the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) released guidelines on the conduct of random drug testing among secondary and tertiary students. This was revised in 2009 when then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered a nationwide drug test among students.

The previous moves were done pursuant to Section 36, Article III, of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2003.

The environment then, however, was not as violent as it is now in the Philippines.

Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign has been widely criticized for its high death toll of more than 3,500 deaths in police operations, going by official police numbers that have fluctuated in the past months. The number of people actually killed by vigilantes is still being hotly debated and contested. (READ: CHR: Death toll in drug war higher than what gov’t suggests)  

According to Legaspi, the random drug testing among students “will open the floodgates to more killings of minors” as the government intensifies its campaign.

Sa tingin namin, mas mapapalawak ang offensive ng government on this drug war at magiging vulnerable talaga ang minors because of this order (We believe this will widen the offensive of the government in this drug war and make minors more vulnerable),” she said. 

Questions of privacy 

This fear is not unfounded as the number of minors killed in drug-related incidents increased in recent months. As of July 2017, CLRDC has monitored at least 54 people aged 18 and below, killed in either police operations or vigilante killings. (LIST: Minors, college students killed in Duterte’s drug war)

Perhaps the most highlighted incident was the death of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos who was was killed by police during a drug raid in Caloocan City on August 16.

The death of the grade 11 student sparked criticism of the government’s handling of its campaign. It has also led to probes conducted by the Senate, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights, and Malacañang, among others. 

Many parents have also expressed worry about the conduct of drug tests, according to the national chairperson of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), Benjamin Valbuena. 

Education Secretary Leonor Briones, however, assured parents and students that they have nothing to worry about. She promised strict confidentiality on drug test results of students, adding that any leakage will be subjected to penalties. 

The tests’ guidelines, as stated in DepEd Order Number 40, series of 2017, indicate that results will pass through layers of officials before the student and parents are notified. 

The laboratory results will be placed in a “sealed envelope and marked confidential” and will be transmitted to the Office of the Secretary. From there, they will be given to the designated “drug testing coordinator” in each school then eventually find their way to the parents. 

Yet this assurance still does not sit well with CLRDC, considering the publicized methods of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in drawing up its drug lists – drop boxes and anonymous tips, among others. Various innocent people have also been included in the drug watch list of their local police stations. (READ: On a drug list and innocent? Here’s what you should do) 

The children’s rights group also hit the provision in the guidelines that says, with or without the parent’s consent, a student chosen to undergo the random drug test must comply.  

“The news of minors killed in the campaign against illegal drugs already created fear among the youth,” Legaspi said. “How much more this? You are enforcing the fear in their minds because of this order and they will feel helpless because they need to follow it.”

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) also echoed this point, adding that the random drug tests in schools may have “serious constitutional questions involving due process.”

“It could place more children at significant risk of being included in the drug watchlist that is being generated,” CHR Chairperson Chito Gascon told Rappler.  

“Mandatory random drug testing further exposes persons below age of majority to different forms of reprisal.”

The danger of ‘false positive’ results

The DepEd guidelines further say that if a student tests positive, the drug testing coordinator will have to set a conference with his or her parents, together with a Department of Health (DOH)-accredited physician to start the rehabilitation process.  

After the student’s level of drug dependency is determined, he or she will undergo counseling and other interventions – either from a government agency such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) – or private facilities, depending on the parent’s choice. (READ: How to seek drug treatment and rehabilitation in the Philippines) 

If he or she tests positive for the 2nd time or fails to show improvement, a physician or the facility can recommend admission to a DOH-accredited facility.  

If parents refuse to let their child proceed with the above-mentioned interventions, guidelines say that DepEd can still proceed in accordance with Section 61 of the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. It calls for compulsory confinement. 

CLRDC, however, worries that a “false positive” result could leave a stigma on the student. 

A false positive result can happen especially if a patient takes medicine that has the same structure as illegal drugs. 

Talagang makakaabala sa pag-aaral niya iyon kasi imbes na pumapasok siya, kailangan niya mag-undergo ng interventions,” Steph Laude, CLRDC researcher, said. “Ma-stigmatize siya dahil kahit mali iyong results, hindi maiiwasan na iisipin ng mga tao na talagang gumagamit siya, masisira iyong dignity niya lalo at bata pa.”

(It will really disrupt his or her schooling because instead of going to school, he or she will have to undergo interventions. The student will also be stigmatized because even if the results are wrong, people will still think that he or she really uses drugs, thus affecting his or her dignity, especially since they’re young.) 

Preventive education first

Education Secretary Briones insisted that the drug testing is not punitive but rather preventive. On Wednesday, the education department announced it is reviewing the sampling method after concerns were raised by legislators. 

CLRDC, however, said the goal of curbing illegal drug use among minors may not be achievable through random drug testing. 

Paano kung sa limang estudyante, tatlo ang napili pero hindi iyon talagang gumagamit ng droga?” Laude pointed out. “Sayang rin kasi hindi rin matatamaan ng intervention nila iyong talagang dapat.

(What if among 5 students, 3 are chosen but they don’t really use drugs? The interventions will be put to waste because these won’t reach the intended targets.)

What DepEd should do is focus its resources on raising awareness among all students on the ill-effects of illegal drugs. The approach should be to treat drug addiction as a health problem. (READ: Drug addiction is a health problem. Somebody please tell the President.)

Dapat ang una nilang bine-break ay iyong stigma na maaaring nasa mga bata na,” she said. “Hindi malayo na kahit sabihin nilang hindi ito punitive, mag-iiba ang pananaw ng mga bata at ng eskwelahan din sa mga positive mag-positive.”

(They should first strive to break the stigma of drug addiction ingrained in children. It’s not far-fetched that even if they say it’s not punitive, the negative perception of a student who tests positive will change.)

Not a deterrent?

Several foreign researches have also pointed out that conducting drug tests in schools will not automatically deter students from using illegal drugs.

For instance, a 2010 study commissioned by the United States Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences found that there was no “spillover effect” or decrease in drug use among students who were not tested in their school.  

Another study conducted by the University of Michigan, based on questionnaire data collected from 89,575 students between 1998 and 2011, discovered that students were likely to use a different illegal substance instead of the type that the drug test wants to identify.

While illegal drug use is indeed a problem, Laude said that the factors surrounding use by students should be addressed. These include poverty, peer pressure, and a better environment in school, among others.  

Tingnan dapat kung bakit nga ba natutukso na gumamit ang mga estudyante in the first place, alamin ano ang kanilang problema? Ano ang factors? Sa family ba?” she said. (They should look at why the students are tempted to use illegal drugs in the first place. Know what their problems are. What are the factors? Is it the family?) 

The Commission on Higher Education has implemented a similar move allowing colleges to test its students. Some schools, however – like the University of the Philippines – have opposed it.

It is not known when exactly the mandatory random drug testing among high school students will start this year. One thing is for certain: parents will be placing their children’s lives into the DepEd’s hands. – Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.