Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency Director General Aaron Aquino left not a few mouths agape in shock and fear when he proposed recently that schoolchildren as young as those in the fourth grade be subjected to mandatory drug tests.
This was necessary, he said, because the agency tasked by law to prosecute the government’s war on drugs had caught or “rescued” 770 children aged 10 to 17 over the last year. Of this number, 182 were said to be drug users, while 588 were tagged as pushers.
Aquino highlighted the gravity of the situation by citing the case of a 6-year-old alleged drug
runner caught by the agency’s operatives in Cotabato four years ago.
If true, that is a terrible, heartbreaking story. But Aquino’s prescription for the frightening specter he has raised is something much worse: a campaign to subject 14 million schoolchildren across the country from Grade 4 and above to mandatory drug tests, just because 770 of them—0.000055 percent—have been found to be involved in illegal drugs. Or so PDEA claims.
This startling proposal appears to be the latest in the Duterte administration’s peculiar checklist of ideas about saving children. Among the bills backed by President Duterte early in his term was a measure that sought to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9. The President said the proposed law would help stop a “generation of criminals,” and ensure that youthful offenders are “taught responsibility.”
The human rights monitor Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center denounced the bill as “criminalizing” minors and “legitimizing” state violence against children. The center also said that as many as 54 children were killed in the first year alone of the administration’s war on drugs. The President, echoed by many of his officials and supporters, has dismissed such deaths as
One of those young lives extinguished, 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, was seen on CCTV dragged to an alley by police operatives before he was found dead, slumped on a mound of trash and his young body pumped with bullets. The country was so outraged by the incident that Malacañang was forced to suspend the drug war for a while. But the campaign is back in full swing, and now it appears to be widening the net to include Filipino children as official targets.
Education Secretary Leonor Briones has pushed back against PDEA’s proposal, pointing out that the law at present, the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, only authorizes drug testing for secondary and tertiary level students. Also, enforcing such a campaign is not only “very complex,” but will impinge on the children’s right to privacy, even as the kids themselves remain unable to fully comprehend the nature and implications of the procedures they will undergo. “If you subject a 10-year-old to tests, it’s not going to be pleasant. Somebody’s watching you. It’s not like going to the movies,” said Briones.
The cost of the proposed drug tests on children is pegged at P80 for each drug testing kit, according to PDEA, and even up to P300 as estimated by the Department of Education. But “the cost is
immaterial” to “save the children,” said Aquino. The Alliance of Concerned Teachers has pointed out that the P4 billion required for such a sweeping campaign is “so off-tangent from the most pressing issues in schools and is a big waste of people’s money.”
Indeed. But there is more at stake here than the people’s taxes squandered on another harebrained government idea. With PDEA’s scenario about schools overrun by drug-addled kids apparently cranked up to alarmist levels, its proposed remedy is also as blunt—the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to ferret out a few mice, if any, plaguing the household. And, as with the rest of the administration’s drug war, the weight of that proposed campaign stands to fall disproportionately on an already much put-upon sector: poor children from poor families. Once again, the country’s most destitute and most vulnerable young citizens will be at greatest risk from this overzealous idea.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.