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Schools drug testing their students has long been a controversial issue. In this fourth installment of our Whole School series, Naomi Arnold hears from all sides of the issue. It’s not the quick fix some think it may be.
There’s been a change of heart at Hicks Bay’s Te Kura Kaupapa Mäori o Kawakawa Mai Tawhiti. The old attitude towards drug use is gone, and in its place is a new suite of approaches that local CAYAD coordinator Moki Raroa says is proving very successful.
The old way, he says, was “basically sending them home and saying, ‘Come back and talk to a discipline committee’.”
“Generally, those kids got kicked out. Four or five years ago, we said, ‘Let’s try something different’, and we’ve never looked back.”
The focus instead is on trying to keep students engaged at school rather than letting them go. “What use is that?”
If a student is using drugs, a plan kicks into place. It involves assessing their dependency, giving them information from local health agencies, explaining what drug convictions will mean for future travel and work opportunities and education from the local Police. It offers support to family and whänau if there are issues at home, along with mandatory counselling.
But success requires everyone to pitch in and be on the same page, Raroa says – school, local health and social workers, whänau and student.
“I think it’s a very good option for some schools if they want to take a holistic approach, but it’s getting everyone to work together,” he says. “If that happens, it’ll succeed.”
The kura’s Tumuaki (Principal) Campbell Dewes says the kura is no different from any other community in New Zealand.
“Mind-altering substances are prevalent throughout society, and it would be naive of us to think that we would be immune to drug use amongst our students.”
He says the school wants to work on rehabilitation, examining every incident on a case-by-case basis in order to address its severity.
“We, the kura, don’t have the drug problem – if there are drugs in the home, then there’s the problem. So we’ve drawn a circle around our school so that all of us are drug-free, alcohol-free and smoke- free,” he says.
“When we do suspect there has been partaking of drugs among our students, we let the parents know. We usually go and see them face to face at home on their patch, and we talk to them about a urine test, which isn’t totally foolproof but is an indicator that there have been drugs.
“It is an agreed practice that we want students to be drug-free for their future tenure at this kura, so they must pass a series of tests until they are. Their names are also given to the Police for their files, and drug and alcohol counselling is put in place as well.
“So far, of the few students we have had to put through this programme, just two have failed to come through the other side.”
The kura’s use of drug testing is part of a host of initiatives and is the beginning of a journey rather than its end. Evidence shows that a punitive approach to drugs leads to worse life outcomes for students, and how a school reacts can have lasting consequences on the student’s education and life. But there is no one drug-testing policy across New Zealand. Each school decides how best to serve its community.
Drugs are a leading cause of students missing out on schooling. Nationally, Ministry of Education statistics show that, in 2014, drug use was the second- most common reason both for suspensions (23.7 percent) and exclusions (16 percent), but it was the main reason for expulsions, accounting for 26.7 percent of cases.
Many of those students will have been given a drug test at some point.
Some schools strongly defend their right to test for drugs and to exclude or expel anyone found with drugs in their body. Others say testing is inappropriate [and] leads to a breakdown in relationships with students...
New Zealand Drug Foundation Youth Services Adviser Ben Birks Ang says many schools don’t have a policy on alcohol and drugs, instead dealing with things on a case-by-case basis. Some test for drugs on a student’s smell, behaviour or appearance; others on a rumour. Some rely on their suspicion and then get the friend group tested as well.
However, he says, if a good drug policy is in place, especially one that offers lots of support, drug testing is “essentially irrelevant”.
Some schools strongly defend their right to test for drugs and to exclude or expel anyone found with drugs in their body. Others say testing is inappropriate, leads to a breakdown in relationships with students and does little to ensure people get the advice and help they need.
As for the results, schools might quietly tell a student it’s best to jump before they’re pushed and enrol in another school; many parents, not wanting the blemish on their child’s school record, would likely agree.
Birks Ang says some schools take a more holistic approach.
“Some schools have a strong belief that the social side of things is a part of their role at school, so they do a lot to keep young people there,” he says.
“But at other schools without a holistic focus, it is harder for schools to discuss drugs without worrying that it could negatively affect their image. Families choose which school to send their child to, so the image of the school is important, and schools often do not want to be associated with substances. This limits their options.”
If there aren’t clear policies and practices, a school can take a skewed approach. “This can include over- emphasising the place of testing,” he says.
“A lot of this is on the assumption that, if a young person is using drugs, they’re a risk to other people’s safety. That’s the main concern boards or principals talk to me about, but I haven’t seen much evidence to prove that’s the case.”
Patrick Walsh is the Principal of Rotorua’s John Paul College and quotes Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft on the matter.
“He says drugs in school ought not to lead to stand-downs and suspensions, because he deals with kids who are suspended for those offences, and it can lead to a spiral for crime. The best way to rehabilitate the students is to keep them in school.”
He believes that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and the “critical factor” for success in a testing regime is the attitude of the students.
“When kids are consuming drugs, it indicates they’ve got things going on in their life and there are mitigating circumstances,” he says.
“It seems to me that most students who get involved with it just for experimental reasons are testing it out. There’s not a huge number who have an actual drug problem. On that basis, I think schools do need to be very careful in those circumstances that they don’t move very quickly to ultimate disciplinary action.”
YouthLaw Aotearoa barrister and solicitor Joanna Maskell says schools cannot test students for drugs without their consent but can refer testing to a third party (with student consent) for example, as a condition of return to school after a suspension hearing.
“They are not able to randomly search students either,” Maskell says, adding that students have the same rights as all citizens under the Bill of Rights Act.
The Ministry of Education has procedures set out in the Education (Surrender, Retention, and Search) Rules 2013. It allows schools to have a third- party agency bring in a drug sniffer dog to search lockers if there is a suspicion of drug use. In terms of testing, the guidelines say it should be for a prescribed period only – it should not go on randomly for the rest of the year. It emphasises that students should seek treatment for drug issues, and the school should aim to make sure the student has genuine, informed options and knowledge of the consequences and potential outcomes of those options.
It also says students may be encouraged to participate in a voluntary drug treatment programme that involves testing of bodily samples, even when a student continues to attend school. “Schools should not, however, insist on a drug treatment programme as an alternative to suspension,” it says.
Maskell says most schools will suspend students under section 14 of the Education Act if they are found to be using or dealing drugs on school property. The board of trustees makes a decision about whether the student is excluded or expelled from school or whether they can return. The board has a right to impose “reasonable conditions” upon the return of a student to school.
“Sometimes, a board will make it a condition that a student undertake drug testing and can show they are free of drugs before they return to school and that they continue to produce drug-free tests for a period of time after their return.” YouthLaw’s recommendations are that schools should not be testing students at school for drug use.
“They are, however, able to stand down or suspend a student if they have a reasonable belief they have taken or dealt drugs at school, as this may fall under the category of ‘gross misconduct’ under section 14 of the Education Act,” Maskell adds.
New Zealand School Trustees Association President Lorraine Kerr says the school is obliged to ensure that every student has the right to education.
“While they’re under the influence of drugs, we’re not meeting our obligation – particularly from the point of view of whether it has an effect on other students’ rights to learn as well as their own,” she says.
Drug testing is indeed a thorny business, ethically, legally and biochemically. Many of those issues aren’t well understood, Nelson-based CAYAD coordinator Rosey Duncan says.
Duncan has written a guide on effective alcohol and drug policies, More Than Just a Policy, available at healthaction.org.nz. The policy notes that research shows a strong case can be made against drug detection and screening strategies in schools, and policies that “address key values, attitudes and perceptions [of peer drug use]” may prove more important in drug prevention than drug testing.
Duncan says different tests – blood, breath, urine or hair – take different amounts of time to process, detect differing substances and have differing windows of detection, so they may or may not show whether a person is currently under the influence of any particular substance or has used it at some time in the recent past.
“I would say drug testing is often an invasion of privacy. If someone’s using a substance in their recreational time, which isn’t impacting on their ability to work or study, is there a need to drug test?
“Why do they want to know? Is it because they think a person is a drug user? How does that information help the school or the person? Do they want to know if a person is under the influence of a substance at the time? Is it something that is required by their health and safety policies? Schools need to have planned procedures in response to the results they get, such as providing counselling, or engaging other support services.”
YouthLaw’s recommendations are that schools should not be testing students at school for drug use.
She says schools need to be very clear about why they’re doing a drug test and consider the need to maintain ongoing trust with the student. Usage doesn’t necessarily mean they’re experiencing dependent on a drug.
“If an organisation or a school imposes drug testing on a group, it potentially erodes trust, whereas if it’s something the young people feel is going to be beneficial to them, it can help. The primary thing is to have that positive caring relationship. If the young people know the organisation is acting to support their health and wellbeing rather than coming from a punitive approach, it’s much more likely to be received in a way that’s going to be useful.”
However, she says not every drug test is unwarranted. There might be some times when the user would prefer to be drug tested so they can say to their peers, “I’m not allowed to use X.”
“It gives them an out in a situation they might otherwise find tricky to extract themselves from,” she says.
Patrick Walsh agrees with Duncan and Birks Ang that there is potential for misinterpretation of the tests.
“I think that area is probably something that’s not well understood, and certainly, I don’t think the tests they do in schools, which are at the very basic level, would be sufficiently robust. Having said that, most schools have reasonably conservative parent communities, so they do expect a tough line on drugs. That’s the tension principals have to work with.”
At Burnside High School in Christchurch, Principal Phil Holstein says, if there are suspicions, they generally ask, as part of the discipline process, for evidence of blood tests and a return to school under conditions. (He does, however, lean more towards exclusion if a student is actually dealing drugs.)
“We’re wanting a clear drug test, and what we quite often do with some people is make sure it’s reducing all the time. Some schools have said they can’t return until there’s a clear blood test. We have to, hopefully, work to show that being drug-free is going to impact positively on their learning.”
Parents have generally been “hugely supportive”.
“We’re assisting them, and we’re working together, which I like. It works really well, but the students themselves have to be committed or the whole process breaks down, and we might have to go to another stage.”
The outcome used to be exclusion – now, they’re looking at individual needs and considering wrap-around services that might help.
“I think that’s in response to our more restorative practices,” he says. “Things have changed in society.”
After getting the results of a drug test back from the lab, interpreting the results is pretty black and white, right?
Think again. Setting aside the accuracy of the test and the actual levels of substances detected, when it comes to cannabis, there is actually room for misinterpretation.
Here’s what can happen. Urine tests measure the substances made by the body when THC from cannabis is broken down. They don’t directly measure the THC from cannabis itself. Cannabis stays in the body for much longer than the psychoactive effects do, which means that urine tests can pick up these THC byproducts for days after use.
Someone who has been regularly smoking cannabis will find it hard to cease using. They may dramatically cut back but could still reuse. Remember, a drug is a powerful thing that someone may turn to in order to relieve anxiety, when they’re stressed or for comfort. This can happen regardless of the potential consequences.
A single instance of reuse can lead to a disproportionate spike in the urine test levels, especially if the body has not got rid of all of the cannabis yet. Remember, this can take days.
In other words, urine tests can identify recent cannabis use, but they cannot identify if someone is ‘stoned’. Higher levels indicate that use was closer to the test being done, but if the tests are too spaced out, they do not give enough of the picture to show if someone is reducing their use or not.
This pattern needs to be considered when deciding on what action to take (or not) after results are returned. When there is a danger of misinterpretation, erring on the side of caution is recommended. Giving a second chance, opening up dialogue and understanding what is driving drug use will have more beneficial outcomes than, strictly adhering to a ‘fail and you’re out’ policy.
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