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What to do with 'high' school students

aug 2008 high school students

A high-profile Auckland school, trumpeting the battle cry of zero tolerance, kicked out 12 students for drug-related offences earlier this year, and in the process won kudos from its community.

Other schools are critical and say excluding students does nothing more than pass on the buck along with the problem student. Health, drug and alcohol experts say principals and boards need to involve parents and the community in finding better ways of dealing with school drug problems. Gael Woods

Westlake Boys High, a Decile 10 state on the affluent North Shore of Auckland City boasts of having "facilities to make your education experience enjoyable". And presumably, with its policy of zero tolerance, drug-free.

Unlike, Westlake Boys, Napier’s William Colenso College does not operate a zero tolerance policy. On the contrary, its position on drug infringements could be described as very tolerant.

The principal, Mark Cleary, is well aware that drugs are a regular feature of some students' lives. "For all that, we make it clear that drug taking is not sanctioned, and we will take drastic action if students have drugs at school," he says.

"But zero tolerance implies exclusion from school and New Zealand society cannot afford to have a significant group of young people not at school because of drug use."

Cleary has little patience with schools adopting a zero tolerance approach. "They are abdicating responsibility for young people in their school. They're just passing the problem students on to other schools."

A member of the board of trustees at William Colenso, Trish Gledhill, says the school does tend to accept students who've been thrown out of other schools. "While that might not help our reputation, you have to reframe it. We don't want to be seen as a school that takes bad kids, but one that's particularly responsive.

“We do have support services here and a range of prevention and intervention programmes that benefit all kids, not just those with significant problems."

“But it's not always easy. The ministry obviously wants to reduce suspension and exclusion rates, but doesn't always give you a lot of help."

YouthLaw, a community law centre for young people, sometimes becomes involved in cases of drug-related school disciplinary action. A senior solicitor at YouthLaw, John Hancock, says that legally, schools cannot operate a zero tolerance policy.

"The courts have said you can't take a blanket approach or have a pre-ordained outcome for any one situation. There is a need for proportionate decision-making, which takes into account the circumstances and the individual student."

"Zero tolerance clashes with that because it says if you're caught with drugs you will be chucked out. Some schools think that sort of policy is a deterrent, but it's probably not enforceable."

Hancock says zero tolerance is a bit of a ’buzz word’. "It sounds like you're saying, 'We're not tolerating this sort of thing', as if other sorts of ways of dealing with it are permissive of the activity, but this isn't."

Westlake Boys principal Craig Monaghan says that for him zero tolerance means anyone with drugs will be sent to the school board, which, he acknowledges, cannot take a zero tolerance approach.

"The board will look at every case. It showed that in the most recent case by being willing to take back four boys."

Monaghan rejects the charge that the school is abdicating its responsibility and simply handing on the problem to another school.

"All schools will at some stage exclude students. We have to make the right decision for our students, and at Westlake we feel that the drugs message needs to be black and white.

"But we don't just leave the boys [who have been excluded] hung out to dry. I and my PA have been on the phone for many hours finding other places for them."

Zero tolerance as a school policy is frowned on by the Ministry of Education.
The senior manager of implementation and planning for schools and students, Jim Greening, says the ministry's preference is for schools to treat drugs as a health issue and deal with students on a case-by-case basis.

“If you put up a brick wall and say, 'Let's not think about it, you're gone,' you'll be kidding yourself," says Greening. "Drugs is an issue that doesn't belong entirely in schools; it's in the community. It's a New Zealand-wide issue and if schools are aware of that and treating it that way, they'll have more chance of succeeding with those kids."

Greening points to figures for suspensions and stand-downs released last month, which are at their lowest in ten years, as a sign that schools are increasingly dealing with drugs as a health matter. He says the 39 percent fall in drug suspensions since 2000 is the main reason why overall suspensions have fallen.

Moreover, for the first time in eight years, drug suspensions no longer represent the main type of suspensions. The number of exclusion cases for drugs has also dropped (by 45 percent since 2000). The ministry says the "slight" increase in stand-downs is further evidence that schools are not resorting to suspensions as quickly as in the past.

While the ministry might be perturbed about schools that would rather get rid of offenders than keep them in the school, YouthLaw believes it's a practice that boards have been able to get away with.

John Hancock feels schools are relatively unchecked when it comes to decision-making concerning students, particularly with regard to drug searches and drug testing. He says this leaves schools open to possible legal liability if things are done wrong
"There are fundamental rights laid down by the Bill of Rights, as well as a number of civil liberties, such as the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. There are issues over whether searches and testing are a reasonable, or effective response to an alleged situation involving drugs, and whether teachers and other school staff can carry out searches. Some schools bring in sniffer dogs. These are complex issues."

Hancock says the response to action against a student depends on the follow-up from the family, with parents often taking a pragmatic view. "Their child's in trouble. Something untoward in terms of process may have occurred, but their main concern is keeping the child in school.”

That is probably why there's little New Zealand case law on drug testing and searches. Whether a board can enforce either measure has never been determined by a court, and someone would need to be willing to take those steps.

"It's a big thing to take legal action against a school and that's why it seldom happens,” says Hancock. “It might not necessarily be in the child's best interests, it takes a long time, it's expensive with no guarantee of success, and even with name suppression it can still feel like quite a public process." (See sidebar)

At Kapiti College in Raumati, principal, Tony Kane says almost every case of drug testing is done with "grateful" support from parents. He says that making a return to school conditional on testing also helps students.

"We say, 'We know you've got a problem and that it's hard to say no, but you'll be compulsorily tested and you can tell your friends outside school that you can't smoke drugs because you're being drug tested’. We've had a few kids who've been quite grateful for that assistance in dealing with their lives outside school."

Kane says the school talks about taking a zero tolerance approach, but would never kick a student out for drug use.

Bringing drugs on to school property is different. "If we have someone with drugs at schools, I tell the other students who it is and what the consequences are."

Some of his students remember well the day four of their peers caught with drugs had to stand up in assembly and make a speech saying drugs were bad.

"I thought it was funny," says Nick. "It was shameful."

His classmate, Alex, says she thought the matter had been dealt with in a good way. "There were all these rumours, and now everybody knows they got snapped at school. No-one wants to stand in front of assembly and say they've been stupid."

Another student, Kewa, says there was definitely nothing "cool" about it for the students involved – "Not when there are 250 students saying you're a loser."

The students approve of their school's overall approach and believe that while the expression "zero tolerance" is used, it’s not really implemented.

"I like it because people make mistakes," says Alex. "They need to be given a fair chance. Some will think they've got it sussed and drugs will make it all all right. But you can't give up on them.

“Just expelling them and sending them on is saying the school can't be bothered. I'm not saying there shouldn't be punishment, but schools should put in the effort and take them under their wing."

The guidance counsellor at Kapiti College, Fiona Wallace, regularly sees the results of drug use, specifically, cannabis, which she describes as the major drug affecting youth. She favours the promotion of zero tolerance, saying there has to be a strong line against drug use.

"The thing I perceive mostly and sadly is the acceptance that as an adolescent you're likely to try drugs and alcohol, which wasn’t the perception when I was growing up. And they have a perception that's it's all right to have a session every now and then. They don't realise or understand the impact cannabis has on their systems."

While she regards cannabis as the greater evil, alcohol is a real concern, with it featuring in many students' lives.

"Sadly, I've seen students who have adopted a lifestyle around alcohol, including one who by 14 was quite dependent on it. I am alarmed at the amount they drink over a week, let alone in one session, and it's mainly pre-mixed drinks and spirits."

Tony Kane says it is extraordinarily difficult to do anything about alcohol when it’s so easy for young people to get.

"At the time, I thought lowering the drinking age to 18 was probably just acknowledging reality. But it was a bad idea because it simply dropped the entire set of ages. There is no problem whatsoever for them to get alcohol, older brothers and sisters will get it and I know very well that some places have no compunction about selling it to them. Kids can get it whenever they like."

Several Kapiti College students make the point that while drugs affect a small number of students, most people at senior school level drink.

"Every Monday morning, it's always laughs about what people got up to at the weekend; who was so drunk, so out of it," says Alex.

"It used to be movie nights," says Kewa. "But, now it's drinks and that's most weekends."

Fiona Wallace is unimpressed with student "drinks". But, she says, cannabis is far worse than alcohol. "Alcohol is removed from the system quickly. Cannabis has much more damaging effects and remains in the body for a month or more, and how it affects the developing brain is just devastating. The kids don't realise how severe it is on them and how they function."

For all that, a leading researcher on drugs and alcohol says that without doubt alcohol is the major drug problem for New Zealand.

The director of the Centre for Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation at Massey University, Sally Casswell, says that the wide availability and increasingly sophisticated marketing of alcohol, combined with greater consumption by young people, make it much more difficult for messages against alcohol to be effective.

In a research paper to be published shortly (see sidebar), Professor Casswell says the problem for school-based drug and alcohol education programmes is that they try to go beyond what schools normally do, by attempting to change behaviours that are deeply embedded in our culture.

"Nobody expects the teaching of geography or history to change behaviours in the way we expect a few classroom lessons to change the way students think about behaviour around drugs and alcohol, particularly when it is constantly reinforced by peers, family, marketing and availability.

"With marijuana, which is the most widely-used illicit drug, there is control of supply and we don't have the level of availability because society treats it differently. With alcohol, there is some control, but it's pretty feeble in terms of access and consequently there's widespread use."

Professor Casswell says while the evidence suggests that classroom-based, universal drug and alcohol education programmes have minimal effect, there is research which shows that changing the whole school environment might be more helpful and that schools should be seen as just one side of a community-wide intervention.

At William Colenso College, Trish Gledhill agrees the problem is a community one and drug education that works well usually involves the family. Her work with families and addiction has also convinced her that schools work well when they are linked to the community, which is why she believes that it would be wrong to impose an over-arching central approach on schools.

It would be hard to find a school that has never had to deal with a drug or alcohol issue, but, while it's often complex and never easy, schools have had to become practised at dealing with it over the past 20 years.

“Even if it's just knowing when and when not to panic.”

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