Trial Scheme on School Drug Testing:
the Sociological Perspectives
Philosophical and Sociological Perspectives in Education
Wong Hang Chi
December 28, 2009
There has been much concern about the situation of drug abuse in secondary
schools. This December, the Narcotics Division of the Security Bureau and the
Education Bureau launched the Trial Scheme on School Drug Testing in Tai Po
District. Some people believed that the Scheme was an eﬀective way to promote
the public awareness of juvenile drug abuse, while others considered it a waste
of manpower and resources.
The aim of this paper is to discuss this controversial issue from the sociolog-
ical perspectives. The three main theories in sociology, namely the structural-
functional, social-conﬂict and symbolic-interaction approaches, will be used in
the analysis. The ﬁrst two are macro-level theories, concerning the holistic pic-
ture of the society. In contrast, the last one is a micro-level theory, which focuses
on the interaction between the individuals in a particular context.
2 The Structural-Functional Approach
The structural-functionalist is concerned about the structure and the function
of the diﬀerent organizations in the society (Macionis, 2007). In the drug abuse
issue, the social structures that are of interest are the educational system and
the Narcotics Division.
2.1 Social Structures and Social Functions
It would be crucial to have a brief understanding of such social structures of
Hong Kong. The educational system and the Narcotics Division are considered
independent organizations in the society. They ought to be interrelated in some
way, so as to keep the society operating smoothly.
It was suggested by Emile Durkheim that the social function of the educa-
tional system was to ﬁt an individual into the society through the teaching and
equipping of the social norms and cultures to the student (Ravikumar, 2001).
Drug abuse induced tension to the educational system because it would hin-
der such function by harming the student in consideration either physically or
mentally. This would eventually create undesirable eﬀects on the society due to
the abundance of the drug abusers needed to be taken care of and the lack of
manpower to handle such situation.
In this context, the social function of the Narcotics Division was to spread
the anti-drug messages, so as to reduce the harm of the drug to the society.
To perform such function, the Narcotics Division launched the Trail Scheme on
School Drug Testing in Tai Po District this December. The standard form of
Consent to Participation was issued to the secondary schools in the district. The
student could join the Scheme by signing the form. Each time, some 20 students
who took part in the Scheme would be chosen, at random, by the School Drug
Testing (SDT) team and their urine samples would be tested for the presence
of ﬁve diﬀerent drugs. If the result was positive, the urine specimen would be
examined by another brand of tester. The student being tested would be sent
to the counselor for further consultation if the result was found to be positive
again. The school principal and the parent / guardian would be notiﬁed. The
specimen would also be sent to the Government laboratory for yet a further
conﬁrmatory test. The student being tested will neither be charged or expelled
from school however the results were.
2.2 Manifest Functions
Regarding the social functions of the Trail Scheme on School Drug Testing,
one would diﬀerentiate between the manifest functions and the latent function.
According to the oﬃcial documents provided by the Narcotics Division (2009),
the manifest functions of the trail Scheme was twofold.
First, for the students who did not take drugs, the Scheme would help them
to keep staying away from drugs. Since the drug test would be conducted
in regular basis, the students would constantly be reminded that they should
not take drugs or otherwise they could be caught. Second, the Scheme would
motivate the drug abusers to seek help, so that they could quit the addiction
more easily. If the student was discovered to have been taken drugs, supported
programs for both experimental abusers and addicted ones would be provided.
2.3 Latent Functions
The latent functions is, of course, less obvious. On November 16, the Chief
Executive sent letters to the parents and the students in the secondary schools,
saying that the Trail Scheme on School Drug Testing was going to be imple-
mented in the Tai Po District in December. It could be observed that such
act was an alert to the public. In my opinion, whether the Scheme would be
eﬀective was not the main concern of the Government. The latent functions of
the Scheme was in fact to convey the message that the Government was not
neglecting the situation of juvenile drug abuse and to reveal to the citizens that
some policies to overcome the diﬃculties was being established.
2.4 Social Dysfunctions
The Scheme, unfortunately, had some drawbacks. For instance, one of such
social dysfunctions of the Scheme was that it increased the tension in the public,
especially for the students in Tai Po District. The most worrying factor was that
such drug test was still not proven to be eﬀective. A similar scheme had been
conducted in the United State some years ago. Nonetheless, some research
revealed that the deterring eﬀect was not quite signiﬁcant (Goldberg, 2007).
Another dysfunction was the labeling eﬀect that was created. The Narcotics
Division claimed that the labeling eﬀect would be eliminated if all of the sec-
ondary students in the Tai Po District would joined the Scheme. However, there
was some 39% of the students refused to sign the standard form of Consent to
Participation, which was far from the expectation of the Narcotics Division.
3 The Social-Conﬂict Approach
Although social-conﬂict theory is also macro-level oriented, its viewpoint about
the society is very diﬀerent from the structural-functional perspective. While
the structural-functionalist considers the society a relatively stable system, the
social-conﬂict theory concentrates on the social change, the social stratiﬁcation
and the conﬂict between diﬀerent groups in the society (Macionis, 2007).
3.1 Social Change and Social Stratiﬁcation
There had been a drastic social change in Hong Kong during the past few
decades, resulting in a shift in the role of the educational system. In the past,
education was reserved for the people who have a high social economical status.
Poor people had to work at a very young age because they could not aﬀord the
expensive schooling. The education system served as an agent to transmit the
culture of the adult generation to the youngsters. During the 1970s, however,
the middle-class gained power due to the improving economy. The policy was
changed, so that all the youngsters had a chance to be educated. The poor
students were forced to study in schools as a result.
Social stratiﬁcation was built up between the teacher, being in the middle-
class (or above), and the students who had a lower social economical status.
It was because the latter, lacking resources and supports, were inferior in the
examination system. Schooling then became a mechanism to produce the so
called “examination machines”. The teacher must help students to pass the
examination and to obtain the valuable certiﬁcate. It was suggested that, rather
than psychological reasons, such social stratiﬁcation was the main cause of the
disciplinary problems in schools ( , 1987).
Drug abuse, in particular, could be regarded as a byproduct of the disci-
plinary problems, the causality of which was less direct, though. To a certain
extent, drug abuse was a form of challenge to the educational system. Since
most of the students knew that they were not able to gain satisfaction in the
examination policy, they tended to get drown in some sort of enjoyment. The
fantasy of drug abuse could be attractive to these students. The situation was
somehow similar to the work composed by the famous Chinese poet Li Bai, who
was rather alcoholic, instead. Just as Li believed that drinking was an eﬀective
way to forget the grief of his life , some
secondary students regarded drug abuse as a relief from their disappointment
in the examination system.
3.2 Social Inequality
Returning to the drug abuse issue, one would note there had been social inequal-
ity between the Narcotics Division, that was legitimized to be an authority, and
the students in the Tai Po District, since the establishment of the new Trail
Scheme. Though the students may refuse to sign the standard form of Consent
to Participation, the Government had not provide the students with enough
time and opportunity to abolish the new Scheme before it was implemented.
The Scheme was so quickly launched in merely few months that there was little
intervention in the public. Relatively speaking, the schools and the students
were more passive in such context.
The aim of the Narcotics Division was obviously to terminate juvenile drug
abuse at any costs, or at least, to improve the situation. To some extent, one
could observed that the Government imposed its authority upon the schools in
Tai Po District.
For the drug abusers, the Scheme somehow threatened their interest. They
knew that even though the testing process was claimed to be strictly conﬁdential,
they had to go through all those tedious counseling and investigating procedures.
Some sort of embarrassment could occur as the other students may be curious
about the test results. They may produce fake urine sample to pretend that did
not take drugs. Such cases indeed happened in the Unite State and there was
no point in believing that Hong Kong students would not follow. They could,
certainly, deny the signing of the standard form of Consent to Participation.
Yet, they had to bear the risk that others may be more suspicious of their
For those who did not take drugs, on the other hand, the Scheme exert some
pressure on them. Emphasis ought to be put on the so called “due process”
(Strike, 2004). Owing to the policy that the selection of the students to be tested
was arbitrary, there was, of course, a chance of choosing the innocent students.
They were somehow “punished” by a troublesome urine test, paralleled with
the true drug abusers. As a result, the Scheme added some kind of unfairness
to them. They also could refuse to sign the standard form of Consent at the
very beginning. However, it was unwise of them not doing so since they had
not taken any drug at all. In any case, the Scheme would put the students
concerned into a more inferior position.
4 The Symbolic-Interaction Approach
Unlike the two theories in the previous sections, the symbolic-interaction ap-
proach is micro-level oriented. In other words, it concentrates more on the
interaction between individuals in a speciﬁc setting. For the drug abuse issue,
one would be concerned about the way in which the Narcotics Division explained
the Scheme to the public, the communications between diﬀerent stakeholders
and the policies to protect the self-concept of the students, especially the drug
abusers in the secondary schools.
As mentioned earlier in the previous section, the social stratiﬁcation in sec-
ondary schools was intensiﬁed by the educational reform since the 1970s. The
students having a low social economical status would join together to resist
their common “foe”, the teacher, who was often in the middle-class ( ,
1987). Peer group started to became an inﬂuential socializing agent. It gave
the students an opportunity to discuss the topics that were forbidden by adults,
such as drugs (Macionis, 2007). Students would be more easily tempted to take
drugs if their friends were drug abusers or even members from the triad society.
Even if the students did not like to take drugs originally, some of them may
conform to doing so in order to ﬁt in with their peer group. The social inter-
action among the peer group thus aggravated the spread of drug abuse in the
If the society is viewed as the combination of the social interaction between
groups, the only reality that exists is that could be experienced by people.
The process in which social interaction construct the reality of people is called
the social construction of reality (Macionis, 2007). Human being respond to
the others by interpreting their subjective sensing of the environment. Such
interpretation of the sensing is called perception. When two parties interact, one
would show some speciﬁc behavior so as to give the other one certain desirable
perception, and vice versa.
In the drug abuse issue, what the Government should propose was a pos-
itive image of the new Trail Scheme, be it eﬀective or not. The Scheme was
described as a plan obtained after thorough considerations but was not an ar-
bitrary decision. In October, representatives from the Narcotics Division, Edu-
cation Bureau, the Social Welfare Department, the Department of Health and
a Counseling Center for Psychotropic Substance Abusers (CCPSA) explained
the details of the Scheme to teachers and school social workers at a secondary
school in Tai Po.
Ms. Sally Wong, Commissioner for Narcotics, emphasized that many consul-
tation and sharing sessions were conducted to smoothen the interaction between
the stakeholders involved in the Scheme. Likewise, Under Secretary for Educa-
tion, Mr. Kenneth Chen, also supported the new Scheme by saying that it could
help to establish a culture of drug-free campus so the that students could enjoy
a healthier environment (HKSAR Government Press Releases, 2009a). The aim
of the speeches conducted by the Government representatives was in fact a so-
cial construction of the reality about the new Scheme. Clearly, they attempted
to convince the teacher and the social worker of the advantages of the Scheme.
Furthermore, the Narcotics Division used the mass media as a tool to explain
the new Trail Scheme to the public. The mass media had been a prominent so-
cializing agent in the modern society (Macionis, 2007). Most people in Hong
Kong possess a television set. Advertisements about the anti-drug messages
were shown on the television and were broadcast by the radio from time to
time. Information about the new Trail Scheme could also be retrieved through
the Internet, without any diﬃculty. As a companion to the Scheme, a television
drama series about drug abuse, “The Beauty of the Game,” ( ) was
shown in the TVB Jade during 21:30–22:30 at night, when a lot of people were
watching. The ﬁctional story described the situation of drug abuse among the
artists and celebrities in Hong Kong. Drug abusers were given a poor perception
in the program. Towards the end of each episode, there would be a brief descrip-
tion about the harm of taking drugs. In my view, the program was presented in
this manner because the Government aimed to shape the reality of drug abuse
perceived by the audience. Besides being a form of entertainment, the program
also served to spread the anti-drug message, and to enhance the acceptance of
the new Scheme indirectly.
Moreover, the Chief Executive, as mentioned earlier, sent a letter to all the
secondary students and their parents in November. In the letter, Mr. Donald
Tsang not only explained the new Trail Scheme but also sincerely encouraged
the students not to take drugs (HKSAR Government Press Releases, 2009b).
The letter could give the parents and the students a perception that the Chief
Executive indeed cared for them personally rather than remotely.
An important issue that the Government must be aware of was to protect the
self-concept and self-esteem of the students. By self-concept we mean the overall
impression an individual think of oneself. It is a subjective statement. Similarly,
self-esteem is the value an individual gives to oneself. It was well known that
self-esteem of the student could have signiﬁcant eﬀect on learning (Eggen &
Kauchak, 2010). Since the Scheme was only applied to Tai Po District, people
in the other areas may have the perception that the situation of juvenile drug
abuse in the District was the most serious in Hong Kong. The self-esteem of the
students in Tai Po may be worsen by such discrimination. Oﬃcial documents
provided by the Narcotics Division (2009) explained that this was, in fact, not
necessarily the case. They said that Tai Po was chosen in order to fulﬁll such
will of the principals of the secondary schools. To some people, however, the
reason given was not convincing enough. Hence, one could see that the social
construction of the reality may not be always successful. People sometimes may
not think in the way imposed by the Government.
Keeping the data collected conﬁdential was another policy aimed to protect
the self-concept of the students. To a certain extent, the term “conﬁdential”
here was rather vague. What about the notiﬁcation to the principals of the
school and the parents about the test result? How to ensure that they would
tell no one about the case? Somehow, the information did “leak out.” One
might think that not informing the principals and the parents could be a plau-
sible solution. But if they were not notiﬁed, then what was the purpose of the
Scheme? Unfortunately, the Narcotics Division provided no adequate explana-
tions to such concerns. True, while protecting the self-concept of the students,
the Scheme was giving, as a side eﬀect, some perception of mystery (and even
self-contradiction) to the public. Again, this was a partial failure of the social
construction of the reality in the new Scheme.
I must say that the intention of Trial Scheme on School Drug Testing in Tai Po
District was good, but the pace of the Government was too fast. Neither had
the Government learned the lesson of the United State, nor had they researched
thorough enough in the eﬃciency of the Scheme.
In the symbolic-interaction perspective, the Government was fairly successful
in constructing the reality of the new Trail Scheme though social interaction,
a few ﬂaws existed, though. However, the main drawback of its micro-level
orientation was that it failed to treat the society as a holistic entity. Somehow,
the true colors of the Scheme could not be objectively and clearly observed.
The two macro-level theories, on the other hand, revealed some disadvan-
tages of the new Scheme. For the structural-functional approach, the social
functions of the Scheme seemed to be overwhelmed by its dysfunctions. In
viewpoint of the social-conﬂict theory, the new Scheme would worsen the so-
cial inequality between the students and the Narcotics Division, which was the
legitimized authority. If the Scheme was not eﬀective enough in creating the
deterring eﬀect, its weaknesses could not be compensated.
Anyhow, the Scheme had been already launched and could not be halted
so easily by the public. The Government still need to ﬁne tune the Scheme
according to the response of the relevant stakeholders continuously. Hopefully,
the new Trail Scheme will very soon be successful in creating a culture of the
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