If there is one problem that is the great leveller in schools, no matter their academic achievements, social economic status or reputation, it is the growing use of drugs by students.
The drugs themselves may change depending on the wealth and potential accessibility within the environment, but nevertheless, drug use has become a constant management issue for most schools across New Zealand
While stories of drug use tend to only hit the papers when a student is hurt, or because a school is using new or more unconventional methods to deal with the issue, having a sound drug and alcohol abuse policy is essential for a school. Not only is the safety of individual students at risk, but the public perception of a school can be irrevocably changed after being the focus of one or two publicised incidents.
There are plenty of drug and alcohol prevention programmes available to schools. However, while education is part of the issue, schools also need to know what is going on, where it’s happening and how to proceed once drugs are discovered.
Creating a clear policy that all students are aware of is the first port of call for schools. Ensure it clearly states what is considered a transgression on school policy.
It may not be enough to stipulate that it is only your school grounds that are drug free. What then can you do about a student bringing drugs on a school trip, or at a school function? Do you have procedures in place for searching bags, for having sniffer dogs in your grounds, and when will you call in the parents and the police?
There are several different organisations that can help with the detection of drugs in the school, as well as those that can provide crisis management for schools faced with drug issues.
Rubicon, a youth drug and alcohol support service in Whangarei, runs a mixed programme of both education and policy management in the Whangarei and Kaipara districts.
In this area marijuana is the most common drug of choice, as well as alcohol. They offer a drug test that schools can use on students (with their permission), and provide support to students who have been identified as regular users.
Jenny Gibbs, Rubicon’s manager, says they have more than 400 students accessing the service in the area. “We suggest that any student caught with possession or using a drug is placed in a restorative programme and we sign them up to a 12-month programme to support them through the necessary changes.”
Gibbs says her team often work with teens that are using at higher levels than many adults, and expect each participant to agree to random monthly drug testing. “This provides us with a way to measure whether there is a reduction in use. Our aim of course is for a completely clean result,” she says.
The programme measures its success not only in behaviour change and school support, but also in how many students have peer- recommended the programme.
Gibbs is aware that drug dogs are used in some schools but worries about their effectiveness. “Sometimes the dogs have not detected the drugs, which has had an adverse effect on the whole programme.”
However, the New Zealand Drug Detection Service believes that their dogs can help schools when used in conjunction with overall drug education. “If you’ve got a solid drug and alcohol policy, then it’s perfectly acceptable to use dogs to determine drugs in the school. They can be less confrontational for the students than having police in the initial stages, and work as a school-wide drug test in some ways.” explains Nick McLeay, the director of communications for the service.
He believes that drug education needs to be broad, covering both legal and illegal drugs, and then be followed up with a more global drug testing, so that it becomes part of the accepted culture of the school, instead of identifying suspected students to focus on. Legal party drugs have “blurred the line a little and in my opinion are introducing our kids to a party-popping culture,” he says.
Part of this programme should also include where to go if a student does have a problem, so that they can also take charge of the problem if they want. He also agrees that parent education is important “We run education evenings with proceeds going to Starship so that parents can find out what to look for in terms of drug use – often they don’t know.”
It’s easy for schools to feel that battling against drug use is yet another problem to take them away from the central focus of teaching the curriculum. However writing and then enforcing a well-drafted Drug and Alcohol Policy that both educates, protects and provides a well-laid-out plan should there be an issue, provides your students with well-declared boundaries that, once tested and found to be solid, they can settle within and learn.