Imagine there has been a spate of thefts in your office. Every day, news of stolen wallets, cell phones and other valuables terrifies the staff and dominates water-cooler conversations. Scrambling to come up with a solution, management decides to ask each employee to volunteer to have their bags searched by building security every time they leave the office. This “Turn-Yourself-In” program, so called because of its voluntary nature, has left people scratching their heads: who, you wonder, would choose to have a stranger look through their belongings when they can simply walk straight through the door?
But that is exactly what our government is doing to tackle the growing drug problem in the city’s public schools. After a brief period of public consultation, Education Secretary Michael Suen (孫明揚) unveiled a city-wide school-based drug test program (校本驗毒計劃) in which students are encouraged, though not required, to participate. Trials are set to begin in Tai Po (大埔) district beginning December this year. So far the scheme has received widespread support from school principals in the district amidst mild muttering from critics over the potential adverse effect on teacher-student relationships.
At first glance, the school-based program appears expedient, even clever. The scheme’s voluntary nature allows the government to not only sidestep a lengthy legislative process – mandatory drug tests, the kind that has been implemented at a number of international schools in the city, require new legislation to be drafted, argued and passed – but also avoid unwanted public debate over privacy rights that could plunge the administration into another political crisis. That explains why the Education Secretary and Sally Wong Pik-yee (黃碧兒), Commissioner for Narcotics, have gone to great lengths to stress the voluntariness of the program, reassuring students that refusal to take part in the scheme will in no way be construed as an admission of guilt. At a press conference in August, a straight-faced Suen promised, “we hope the scheme will be effective by the fact that it is completely voluntary and we will keep the data confidential.”
But therein lies the fundamental (and fatal) problem of the school-based program. If the program is truly voluntary, as authorities have claimed, then it is destined to fail because students simply can’t be bothered with the silliness. After all, being called out of class in the middle of the day to urinate into a plastic cup isn’t exactly what teenagers consider fun these days. Those who use drugs – the very target of the program – will most certainly snub it unless they want to turn themselves in and risk being expelled or locked up. So is the big hoopla just another publicity stunt certain to fall flat on its face?
Perhaps not. What the government doesn’t say much about, or at least hopes that no one would pay much attention to, is all the harassment that comes with not taking part in a scheme that is “voluntary” only on paper. In practice, if a student strays from the fold and checks the “no” box on the consent form, then parents, social workers and school officials will descend on him like angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks, waving banners that say “denial is proof!” To sugarcoat these dire consequences, however, Suen offered non-participating students this gentle warning: “social workers will try to find out the reason for the refusal [to take part in the program] and inform the principal who will then decide whether there is a need to arrange counseling for the student.” And so if it all works according to plan, every student will be scared into checking the “yes” box and the program will achieve its stated goals to deter and detect. Bureaucrats score major political points for a job well done and parents sleep better at night. Everybody wins.
Well, everybody except for the students. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the entire success of a voluntary scheme hangs on a single assumption: that teenagers are too ignorant to realize that they can, and probably should, say “no” to voluntary testing. There are about two dozen reasons why a person would refuse to take a drug test other than having something to hide. Privacy is one, confidentiality is another. My personal favorite, I just don’t feel like it, should be the default answer to anyone asking for an explanation. In the office theft analogy, if ever building security dare even raise an eyebrow over your refusal to have your bag searched, you would bark right back at him with a reminder that the program is supposed to be voluntary. But we are not to expect the same civic awareness of our students, are we? That’s why we end up with a scheme whose very creation is based on the intimidation and disempowerment of our youths.
But that is not all. The same way students are pressured to take the drug tests, school officials are coerced to cast their “yes” vote to the scheme before they have time to figure out whether it actually makes any sense. Fearful of appearing soft on drugs or worse, trying to conceal drug problems in the schools they run, public school principals have uniformly embraced the government’s proposal and in doing so proven themselves to be just as easily intimidated as teenagers. Cloaked with truisms like “inaction is fatal,” “save our children” and “no time to lose,” the force of coercion sweeps from our classrooms to the principals’ offices, flattening anything that stands in its way. Angry villagers, it seems, are everywhere in our public schools.
Six months after its trial in Tai Po, the school-based program will be reviewed for its effectiveness. The scheme may well turn out to be a smashing success, but it still will not cure the logical fallacy inherent in a “Turn-Yourself-In” program. To confront our teenage drug problem, mandatory testing seems inevitable and the legislative pill, hard as it is, has to be swallowed. Our government is doing the city enormous disservice by shying away from the legislative process, a process designed precisely to deal with situations where competing societal interests are at play. That is, after all, what we pay them to do.