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A school's core business

Otaki College Pincipal Andy by school gates

This is the second in our series of articles looking into new approaches to protecting young people from drug-related harm being adopted by New Zealand schools. Rob Zorn visited Ōtaki College where a restorative practice approach is keeping young people caught with drugs engaged and in class – instead of out on the streets.

Otaki College is a decile 4 school, averaging between 400–450 students, nestled in Horowhenua north of Wellington. More than half the students identify as Māori, and a large percentage come from poorer backgrounds. Sadly, both these demographics punch way above their weight in terms of alcohol and drug use, youth crime, violence and exclusions from school.

I’m only there for a couple of hours but sense a real calmness in the atmosphere. Principal Andy Fraser has a warm smile, and he’s never far from a laugh. There’s an openness about him, too. He admits the school’s had problems (still has them) and that its journey is far from complete. As he leads me around the school, I see a similar openness reflecting from the students he interacts with.

Unsurprisingly now, Ōtaki College is a demonstration site for the Ministry of Education’s Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) initiative. This means other schools can visit the college to learn how to build similarly positive environments.

Things were not always this way. “When I started teaching here back in 2007, the standard approach to students caught with alcohol or drugs was just to stand them down or get rid of them,” he says.

“Attendance rates were poor, and our suspension rates were significantly above national and decile averages. Things just weren’t flash.”

He tells me that, at the same time, there was a lot of youth crime in the local community.

“It was all angry stuff like smashing windows, breaking letterboxes and that sort of mindless, wilful damage, and invariably, the young people who were doing these things were those who had been disenfranchised from schoolThis is the second in our Whole School Series, which look into new approaches to protecting young people from drug-related harm being adopted by NZ schools. Rob Zorn visited Otaki College where a restorative practice approach is keeping young people caught with drugs engaged in class - instead of out on the streets..

“But as we started making changes to the way we looked at these young people and these problems and as our stand-downs fell away and our exclusions approached zero, you could just about map over that the reduction of youth crime and all the destructive stuff.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that there’s a back story to why these young people are doing these things, and you’ve got to get to that back story. You can’t do that by excluding them.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that there’s a back story to why these young people are doing these things, and you’ve got to get to that back story. You can’t do that by excluding them.

The Ōtaki College Board of Trustees Chair agrees that community youth crime has declined dramatically and in close correlation to culture change at the college. He should know. He’s Sergeant Slade Sturmey, in charge of Ōtaki Police.

“Even things like behavioural issues at the community library have gone down a lot. We used to have to deal with 20 or more of these each year. Now, there’s maybe just one, but because we have such a useful relationship with the school, we just come in here and deal with it together,” Slade says.

Andy says the students see Police units at the college all the time, and they’re here for a lot more than to deal with offending. They provide educational programmes, support driver licensing and coach sports teams, so “it’s normal for students to see the Police in a positive way”.

So how and why have things changed?

Andy says the journey commenced in about 2008 shortly after he became Deputy Principal. It was based on ‘student voice’, particularly from Māori students who felt they weren’t getting the right deal from some teachers.

“They said that, where they had good relationships with teachers, they would work hard for them, but where they didn’t, they would be disruptive or not care, and student management became more problematic. That’s telling you something right there, and we now listen to the student voice a lot.

“I would have some teachers banging on my door saying they never wanted a particular student in their class again and insisting we boot the kid out. It took about four years before we started seeing a shift becoming embedded in the school-wide culture, where teachers were feeling the place was calmer and that they could engage much better with students.

In 2008, Ōtaki College began developing its Te Whakaruruhau initiative, which collaboratively involves staff, students, whānau, victims, professional counsellors and the Police. It’s a restorative practice approach targeted at students with drug and alcohol issues. It encourages them to take responsibility for their actions while being supported by teachers and qualified professionals. In line with Whole School objectives, a restorative school is one that has a culture of care that is about enhancing mana and is solution focused.

When a student is caught with or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they may be stood down for one to three days to allow for the college to prepare for a restorative conference. Then the student and their whānau meet with the Board of Trustees to discuss a way forward that will not result in exclusion.

The contract

“It was found to be more effective if there was some sort of contractual agreement at the end of these meetings that outlines decisions attributing accountability,” Andy says.

Through the contract, the student agrees to undergo counselling, to address their wrongs and to submit to random drug testing. Whānau and teachers agree to what they will do to support the student. Students invariably sign, and the contract has never once been questioned by a parent.

“During the process, they come to see it’s not about tripping the young person up and kicking them out of school but about putting as much support as possible around them,” Andy says.

“And I think students understand that the drug testing is not a punitive thing so that, if they fail, they’re down the road. It’s a way for them to see their own progress, and many use it as a deterrent, a reason to give their mates as to why they don’t want to use.”

This is no soft option. Slade says the consequences of not fulfilling the contract are also explained to the student at signing – that the matter will be handed back to the Police or to the courts.

“There may be further hours of community work or even a criminal conviction, depending on their age. That can have devastating consequences for life, but fortunately it has never gotten to this stage. No young person needs a drug conviction on their record.”

Otaki College staff

Drug and alcohol counselling is provided by Margaret Smith who works for Whaioro Trust, an iwi service covering Horowhenua. Ōtaki College is one of two schools she visits weekly. Assisted by school Guidance Counsellor Jo McInerney, she assesses referred students and follows up with weekly or fortnightly counselling sessions. The number of students she’s regularly seeing has fallen to 10 (her contract actually provides for 15 per school).

“The main focus is education,” Margaret says.

“We see it as a health matter. If they’re using at this age, the main thing should be supporting them to make better choices.” So Te Whakaruruhau is working then, I ask.

“Hell, yeah, absolutely,” says Andy.

“As a restorative school, we’re working with people, rather than doing it to people. In an overall sense, the programme is very much about the whole community. Once students understand that everyone cares, it’s so much easier – when they come to you with a problem and immediately see you stop and say, ‘Let’s deal with that.’

“In terms of drugs and alcohol, well, they come at a huge cost to young people and to families, so as a school, you’ve got to see dealing with that as part of your core business.”

Jo McInerney says the college has noticed a real difference between students who start in year 7 – and travel all the way through – and those who come in from outside.

“Some of these young people have been pretty challenging, but when they’ve been here for a bit, they don’t seem to feel they have to behave in the same way as at their previous schools.

Perhaps that’s because they don’t get backed into as many corners by teachers or other students. They understand they can talk to people here and explain stuff and be honest about what’s happening at home. It’s hard work for teachers, but they do see the benefits of getting these young people into the school and socialising.”

Drix

An example is Drix, who became part of the school’s core business early this year. Drix was living in Hastings and spent 18 months on the streets when things broke down with his whānau. Though not even midway through his teens, he ended up with a massive youth justice record (Andy says it’s the size of a small novel). The offences were mostly assaults and robberies. As part of the family group conference process used to address his offending, he ended up coming to live with his uncle in Ōtaki.

“So he was an interesting one, but in the end, Ōtaki College agreed to enrol him and give him a chance,” Andy says.

“He’s actually quite a personable fellow now, though he was pretty wild and woolly around the edges when he first arrived. There were soon some issues involving theft and cannabis, so he has gone through the programme and is now back on track.”

Drix is just 15. He’s pretty tall for his age and, reportedly, a very good rugby player – like amazingly good – and when I get to meet him, I find him open, approachable and calm. I like him immediately and can’t imagine him assaulting anyone.

He’s been using cannabis for the last three years. While in Hastings, he was stoned pretty much all the time, but he cut back using weed significantly when he started at Ōtaki College because of the way it affected his sport training.

In terms of drugs and alcohol, well, they come at a huge cost to young people and to families, so as a school, you’ve got to see dealing with that as part of your core business.

One day, he arrived pretty red eyed after smoking up on the way to school and was ‘snapped’ by Andy while in class. He was stood down for a day and then was asked to attend a meeting with Andy, Slade and some of the Board to work out a restorative process.

“My uncle was there too, and he was pretty disappointed. He gave me a real growling about it, and that was pretty hard,” Drix says.

“They asked me to sign this contract giving them the right to drug test me whenever they want, but they didn’t kick me out. I think they actually gave me quite a big chance, and I’m pretty thankful, eh. I don’t mind the drug tests. They mean I have a reason not to do it – to say no to it.”

Drix has been drug tested only once so far (it’s still early days). He doesn’t know the result of the test yet, but he doesn’t appear too worried. He says he’s not really missing the cannabis at all and is enjoying having “heaps more spare money”.

“They sort of did a deal with me, talked about me staying on Cactus (a school fitness programme run by Police) and still being able to do what I normally do here at school. That was important to me. I really like all the exercise stuff. I play rugby and touch, but I’ll play any sport where you can run around and get hurt.”

He tells me about how weed made him tired all the time, which was no good for his training, but he just laughs when I say he might be slipping on the black jersey one day.

Drix didn’t go to school while on the streets in Hastings but says the education he has had has been exclusively Māori.

“I’m not good at English, and when I came here, I didn’t know how to write in English at all, but I can spell some pretty big words now.”

So what does he think would have happened had they expelled him?

“I think if they kicked me out, I probably would have ended up just walking around all day, smoking weed and being really bored – just waiting for my mates to get out of school.”

He says he likes the teachers and thinks they’ve been really good to him, and he tells me about one or two of his favourites.

“But actually,” he says, “I’ve got heaps of mean teachers around here” – and I’m sure he means that in a good way.

“Schools may be reluctant to talk about these issues because they don’t want people to think they have a drug problem,” Andy says.

“But every college in New Zealand and every community has a drug problem. We don’t have the perfect model, but we have one that is making a difference, and if it’s a model that could work for other schools and communities, then we’re more than happy to talk about it.”

I leave thinking I’d have been happy to have my own children go here, and I’m also making a mental note to watch out for Drix in future All Blacks line-ups. Thanks to the Whole School restorative approach at Ōtaki College, that may very well become a reality.

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