Teaching high school students about drugs and alcohol before they are of legal age is having a positive effect on students at Taieri College. In the third of the Whole School series, Beck Eleven reports on teaching and wider school culture.
Taieri College in Mosgiel, just south of Dunedin, has a roll of around 1,000 students. That number is increasing slowly as new subdivisions pop up in the area. It’s a decile 7 school – like a mini polytechnic with a vast range of senior level subjects such as textiles, primary industry training and hospitality to complement the standard English, science and maths.
Diana Leonard is the teacher in charge of senior health education (and one of the school’s guidance counsellors). She’s that sort of enthusiastic, open person students are drawn to – or it could be the little bowl of fruit she keeps outside her office for students.
Taieri College, a co-ed, has been offering health as a subject for almost 15 years, but a couple of years ago, they made a few adjustments to the curriculum.
Leonard threw herself into the most recent groundswell of research on drug and alcohol education.
“Too early, and it can be ineffective at best, or it can lead to unwanted behaviours through curiosity at worst,” she says.
So the school’s health programme was adjusted, and the drug and alcohol component is introduced in year 10 when the children are aged 14 or 15.
“It’s better when it’s a more relevant age, when they’re just on the cusp of partying.”
At NCEA levels 1, 2 and 3, alongside the academic nuts and bolts of substances of concern, the programme promotes healthy relationships and safety as well as information about the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual effects on wellbeing.
“We look at alcohol and drugs separately, and we look at the law. They have got to know this information so they don’t inadvertently make choices that compromise their futures.
“We don’t use shock tactics – that doesn’t work – but they need to understand the consequences of their decisions around drugs and alcohol.”
They have got to know this information so they don’t inadvertently make choices that compromise their futures.Diana Leonard
The students learn about alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and methamphetamine.
“Some of those are not highly visible in the community, but what was highly visible before the law change was synthetic cannabis. We had five dairies in our small community selling it. I had no idea.
“So we concentrate on harms associated with these substances and providing strategies for enhancing decision making around them.
“At level 2, we thread in sexuality, gender and body image.
“Alcohol is by far and away the most available of all the substances, so we look specifically at societal issues around alcohol harm like domestic violence, alcohol-related violence and vandalism.”
And with the University of Otago just over the hill, there are plenty of real-life examples nearby to use as in-class discussion.
“It can look like a war zone after the Hyde St keg party or the Undie 500. It makes their study relevant because it’s within their community.
“We look at the damage and cost to society as well as emergency department admissions over the weekends when people have been drinking excessively. Then there is the pressure on emergency staff and our health funding resources. So we give everything a wider context.”
She asks the students to think about the ripples in the pond, not just what excessive consumption can do at a personal level.
“So how it could impact their families if they have to front up in court. The shame and humiliation it causes their parents.
“For instance, having a criminal record for cannabis might impact their travelling because many countries won’t accept them in the future, so it becomes a much more far-reaching perspective.”
Marketing also come under the spotlight. The students learn to deconstruct messages around sexuality and confidence through the seduction of advertising.
“Then they can see how a lot of these images make them feel inferior because they pose big glamorous images, and they think ‘If I drink that brand, I will be like that’.”
Social media is another avenue to use in class discussion, because while there are government regulations on alcohol and tobacco advertising, there is no safety net around what is being shared on social media.
“They really need to think for themselves, so if they are drinking an 8 percent RTD, they need to know that is twice as much as a 4 percent one.”
They learn science around the body and alcohol, what the liver can break down per hour, what the drink-driving laws are.
“They leave here well informed about the effects of these things on their physical wellbeing.”
If you’re a long time out of the school system, you might wonder what spiritual wellbeing is if it’s not religious education. In the health sciences, it touches on potential reputation damage. Consent is also part of the discussion, with someone from Rape Crisis visiting the class each year.
“We haven’t seen it so much this year, but I remember a few years ago, we’d have poor kids coming into our offices saying ‘Everybody is talking about me’ and feeling so shamed out over a poor choice they’d made under the influence that weekend.
“It can be quite profound because it just goes viral.”
At level 3, the students step up to determinants of health such as government policy or council bylaws and the economics of health.
“So, for instance, something like changes to the legal age of purchase. There is a lot of money in advertising, so that has an effect on political decisions because of the revenue government can get through taxation.
“I say to my level 3 kids, ‘In this subject, you’re going to learn how to change the world,’ and at the end of the year, I can say, ‘Now go and do it’.
“It opens up their whole horizons.”
As a mother, Leonard uses her family as an example.
“My son wanted to have a few friends over to watch the rugby and have a few drinks, and I said that’s fine if they bring a note from their parents, because they’re here to watch the rugby not here to get drunk or wasted. He agreed.
“Two years ago, my daughter had her 16th birthday. She wanted an epic party at home, so I set a limit on the number of people, we made plenty of food and got lots of music going so the focus was on dancing not drinking.
“Her dad and two older brothers were security, and I told her it wasn’t going on Facebook so we didn’t have gate crashers.
Everybody had to bring a note if they were drinking, and I had a specified limit that no one was allowed to go over.
“She said, ‘Mum, you are so lame’.”
Leonard tells her students these types of personal stories, and they laugh and nod, but she believes that the more parents buy in to these types of agreements, the more it will seem normalised.
She believes change has come rapidly to the community.
“In a small place like Mosgiel, parents know each other, they phone each other, and that’s how you keep your kids safe.
“I tell the kids your parents’ worst nightmare is the Police coming to tell them you are not coming home. I say to my children, ‘I love you and I want to keep you safe, and you cannot argue with me when my bottom line is safety’. It’s a shift from ‘You’re telling me what to do’ because it’s about aroha and safety.”
The way the school treats alcohol puts the students in a better position to make judgements when they are out of school hours.Dave Hunter, School Principal
The class is predominantly female, and two of the year 13 students pop by to explain what they have learned. Courtney Rackley is 17. She feels as though the course applies to her life and what she sees outside the classroom.
Despite many of her fellow students starting to party, she has made the decision to remain alcohol free for at least the rest of the year.
“At this time, I am more focused on school,” she says.
“I don’t see myself as different because I have plenty of friends who don’t drink, but I have seen some of the results of other people after the weekends, and I don’t want a part of that. It puts me off.
“Everyone has smartphones, so you don’t get away with anything. People even capture the smallest little thing, and it makes it seem like such a big deal.
“I don’t see myself going into health right now, but I really like hospitality, so talking about the laws around alcohol is good. I like it because it’s relevant. I would totally recommend it.”
Her friend Tyler Bezett is 18 and able to purchase her own alcohol now.
She says she probably started drinking around the age of 16 or 17.
“You learn about the consequences and stuff,” she says.
“I don’t go out that often, but I do go to friends’ birthdays and parties.
“Most of the parties I go to have a small amount of people. We’re not drinking heaps. We get to talking, and then we sort of forget, so it’s something we do on the side.
“I’m 18 now, so I can buy my own, but when I was 17, my parents would let me have one drink. From there, they would give me my own, say no more than four, and I would take care of those on my own.”
She explains the strict rules around alcohol for their school ball.
Students could choose four RTDs or six beers. Drinking students must bring notes, and the alcohol must arrive that afternoon with a parental signature.
They were issued with a wristband, and an adult dished out each drink. If a supervisor thought someone had drunk enough, the wristband was removed. No more drinks.
School principal Dave Hunter says the health programme and the way the school treats alcohol puts the students in a better position to make judgements when they are out of school hours.
“I mean, of course it is curriculum linked, but it’s important stuff for their lives too. It’s not about preaching to them.
“Having someone like Diana on board is brilliant. She gains the trust of the kids, which is pretty important with the challenges they face going through adolescence.” Hunter says that, after being a teen himself and now 18 years in the education game, he knows adolescence has always had its challenges.
“I don’t think we’ve done ourselves any favours, making adolescence more complex than it needs to be. Kids come unstuck and they always have, but we’ve given them more reason to with permissive parenting and technology.
“We know they might have 2,000 friends on Facebook and they get a few ideas fuelled by reality TV, but the flip side of that is notoriety.
“There was always an unspoken assumption that certain things were more a parent’s role, but things have moved on. Now, schools are entrusted with alcohol, drugs and sex, and we want our kids to be able to be safe stepping into that big wide world.”
Leonard looks back at what she has taught the students who have filed through her classroom.
“I would love to see health education made compulsory at all schools at senior level. It’s just one strategy of minimising harms. Every community is different, and we live in one where the kids might still be reasonably naïve for their age. Of course, there are other communities where other substances are of higher visibility, but it’s perfectly reasonable for other schools to tailor their programme as long as it works in the curriculum.
“I really believe my students take a mature outlook while they are in class. That’s all you can hope for really – that this approach in class transfers to the outside.”
Beck Eleven is a freelance writer and columnist based in Christchurch.
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