Commissioner Urges Schools to Consider Privacy Obligations Before Implementing Drug Detection Programs

April 30, 2004

Commissioner Frank Work is urging schools to consider privacy obligations prior to implementing drug detection programs.

Recent media reports have highlighted the concern some school administrators have regarding illicit drug use among students, a concern which the Commissioner also shares. Some reports have indicated schools are contemplating methods of determining the potential presence of drugs on school premises, most notably through ‘drug sniffing dogs’ or use of individual drug use detection devices, specifically salvia tests.

While the Commissioner appreciates the schools’ desire to ensure a safe environment for its students, he wants to remind schools that they have certain obligations under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP Act). Drug detection programs may involve the collection of personal information and as such the provisions of the FOIP Act need to be considered.

“Schools that are considering the use of drug detection processes and devices need to consider the privacy implications,” says Commissioner Work.

The Commissioner stresses that the FOIP Act is not intended to prevent or diminish school efforts to address safety and health issues or in detecting and preventing possible criminal activities. In fact, the FOIP Act when applied correctly promotes these efforts.

The Commissioner advises schools to consider the least privacy intrusive methods, when contemplating policies for drug use prevention and detection:

  • Individually applied drug tests generally only detect the presence of a drug. Consumption could have occurred days or even weeks prior.  Observant and involved school officials may be able to reach similar conclusions in their day-to- day interaction with students.
  • Drug sniffing dogs may be cost excessive and a similar effect can be accomplished by encouraging students and staff to report illegal activity to school officials.

If a decision is made to use a detection process or test:

  • Ensure that it is done in an open and transparent way, with a written policy that is communicated to students and parents.
  • Ensure the policy addresses all FOIP requirements, including the school’s authority to collect personal information, provisions that address use and disclosure of the personal information and provisions that address security, accuracy and retention of records.
  • Ensure that individuals have the ability to ask questions about the policy.
  • Use detection tests only as the last resort; and
  • Do not use random tests.

The Commissioner is encouraged that schools are actively pursuing effective methods for combating illicit drug use among youth. However, as drug detection programs are significant invasions of an individual’s privacy, the Commissioner would recommend that alternate, less intrusive, methods be considered first, including education, peer support and counseling.