A clear distinction was made by many principals between the guidance and disciplinary roles of schools with respect to cannabis use by students. In all case where use was known to occur but it was outside the school setting, the matter was considered a problem of the individual student. It was treated as a health and education issue and became the responsibility of the guidance counsellor, nurse, social worker or health educator. Some of these students might never be drawn to the attention of other staff, although sometimes the principal became involved if it was felt that parental involvement was necessary.
One intermediate school principal commented that, if staff were alerted to a student coming to school stoned, they watched the student and, if intoxication was confirmed, one of the staff would visit the home.
However, if a student was caught with cannabis at school, it became a disciplinary matter which involved the principal. Even if the school did not deal with the incident with strong punitive measures but took a more health and education approach, use within the school was considered a more serious matter because it impeded learning and threatened the well being of other students and the school's reputation. Some principals saw use within the school as an act of defiance and a challenge to the school rules.
The most common ways in which a cannabis incident in the school was brought to the attention of the principal was through students being caught smoking by staff, parents calling up to report comments by their children or students reporting on other students. If a student was not actually caught with the substance but, when questioned, admitted to involvement with it at school, this was considered enough to make it a formal cannabis incident. As mentioned, all but one of the schools in this study gave an unspecified suspension for cannabis incidents in the first instance.
5.6.1. Managing Cannabis Incidents without Suspending:
The school that did not suspend was dealing with its first official cannabis incident at the time we were interviewing the board of trustees chairperson earlier in the year. As detailed in our report on board of trustees' responses, this school treated the incident as a health and life chances issue and included the wider peer group of those students directly involved in the incident in their management of it. The family/whanau of all the implicated students were informed that their child was not being accused of cannabis use but was considered at risk. They were then invited to accompany their child to a talk about the health implications of cannabis use. Those students known to be directly involved were also required to attend a series of drug education workshops which were organised by the teacher in charge of the health programme. These sessions were still in progress when interviewing for this report was taking place.
In the four month period between the interview with the board of trustees chairperson and that with the principal a second cannabis incident had occurred at this school. Because none of these students had been involved in the previous incident, this incident was dealt with in a similar way to the first. Both the principal and deputy principal considered this approach to be appropriate and effective, although the principal added that if a student was caught a second time or if a spate of incidents occurred in the future an alternative approach would need to be considered. One of the reasons the principal felt the approach taken had worked in this particular school was because of the strength of its internal networks and because of good staff/student relations. This was seen to assist honest dialogue about the incident as well as enable a sense of control that other schools might not enjoy.
5.6.2. Reasons for Suspending:
The nine principals who issued unspecified suspensions in the first instance to students caught with cannabis gave a number of reasons to justify this first action. These were that: the drug was illegal and it was the school's duty to uphold the law, students needed to understand that their actions had consequences, other students needed to get the message that it was too risky to bring drugs to school, such incidents jeopardised the schools reputation and the safety of other students, and parents expected the school to take a firm stand.
In one case the decision to give an unspecified suspension was seen as a means of creating a forum for the parents and student to take the issue seriously and for constructive discussion to occur.
5.6.3. The Board of Trustees Hearing:
In the nine schools which gave unspecified suspensions the students parent(s) were contacted, informed about the incident and asked to collect them. The student was then not allowed back to school until the board of trustees hearing. In the meantime the principal was required to write a report on the matter which was given to the parent(s), the board and the Ministry of Education. From this point the student's educational future lay with the board.
The student attended the hearing with their family/whanau and could also bring an advocate to represent them. The principal attended the hearing to present the case from their perspective but, theoretically, was not involved in the board's final decision. The case was then discussed by all concerned. Some of the board representatives interviewed for our previous study, commented that they felt the presence of an advocate worked well for the student. However, others felt that it made the hearing into an adversarial situation which was not in the best interests of the student because it did not encourage co-operative discussion of events and solutions. The implication was that the advocate encouraged an adversarial approach. Students interviewed for the Youth Law Project's report on the effects of indefinite suspensions on young people (Youth Law Project 1997), on the other hand, felt that the us and them situation came about because of the manner in which boards managed the meetings. One principal in this study commented that, as a result of the tensions present when advocates with a legal perspective attended such hearings, a meeting was set up in his area between Youth Law Project representatives and a group of local principals. The aim was for each party to understand the perspective of the other. In his view an understanding was reached which was very beneficial to all concerned.
5.6.4. Reinstatement with Conditions:
Four of the nine schools which gave unspecified suspensions used a range of means to deal with the cannabis incident by keeping the student within the school, made clear distinctions between particular cases and rarely, if ever, extended the suspension. Commonly, students were reinstated with conditions, unless they had been dealing in the drug or had other behaviour issues. Principals from these schools supported their boards decisions to reinstate students. Some commented that their internal networks and good staff/students relations worked in their favour in terms of both drawing incidents to the attention of staff and enabling their students to move through the experience in a positive way. A fifth school from an area with perceived high levels of use in the local community reinstated about half of those students who had unspecified suspensions. This school had a strong guidance network and a liberal education philosophy but, nevertheless, found it necessary to take a firm stand with cannabis incidents. The principal from this school stated:
As was discussed in the previous report, schools which reinstated students did so conditionally. Some conditions were aimed at addressing the incident as a health and education issue while others were more disciplinary in nature. Some were considered both educational and disciplinary. Commonly used conditions which aimed to educate the student about the impact of cannabis use and encourage behaviour change included: counselling, doing a project on drugs, attending a drug education programme or working with a CADS youth worker. One principal pointed out that a rehabilitative intent was essential if a student was clearly a heavy user.
Disciplinary measures included: community service either within or outside the school; separation from peers, detention, loss of privileges and being placed on a behaviour contract. More detail about these conditions can be found in our board of trustees report (Abel and Casswell 1997).
As in the earlier interviews, principals mentioned that the decision whether to reinstate and the type of conditions attached depended very much on the seriousness of the incident, the level of involvement and whether it was a first time or repeat incident. In many cases a person caught for the first time would be reinstated unless they were also supplying to others or had a history of disruptive
The conditions of reinstatement were seen as important, not only as a means of changing the particular student's behaviour but also as a deterrent for other students.
Following reinstatement students needed to be monitored in order to ensure that they had fulfilled their conditions satisfactorily. One principal pointed out that, while staff in his school ensured the disciplinary conditions were undertaken, they felt less able to compel the students to fulfil the health and education conditions.
Like board members, principals talked of the monitoring process as very time consuming and increasing the work load of already over-worked staff. In acknowledgement of this, one school which suspended then reinstated a group of students required one of their parents to supervise the community service component of their conditions of reinstatement. The level of follow-up given by schools to those who had been reinstated varied. While some did not actively follow up those students once they had fulfilled their conditions of reinstatement, others had formal evaluation processes in place.
Several principals stated that it was rare for those students who were reinstated to be caught again with cannabis. While some conceded that this might be because the students became more adept at concealing their use, others felt that the students had learned from the incident. Those principals from schools with strong internal networks and supports believed these systems worked to good advantage in such situations.
5.6.5. Indefinite Suspension or Expulsion:
The remaining four of the nine schools that gave unspecified suspensions in the first instance took a hard line on any cannabis incident and almost always gave indefinite suspensions to or expelled students involved, effectively barring them from the school. Such schools considered any involvement with cannabis at school to be gross misconduct and rarely differentiated between degrees of involvement. One principal from such a school stated:
Principals from these four schools supported their board's stand to take this hard line approach. They believed it was the best way to curb cannabis use in schools and were convinced that firm action was in the student's best interests. The disruption caused was not considered serious enough to outweigh the perceived benefits from such action.
Two principals from schools taking a consistently hard line were, however, considering proposing to their boards that those students who had been suspended indefinitely or expelled for incidents which were silly mistakes be allowed to apply to come back to the school after a period of several months. When asked why in those cases they didnt recommend that the student be reinstated after the board hearing, both principals replied that they saw value in giving an indefinite suspension because it gave a strong message to the other students and to the parent community that drugs were not tolerated at the school. In their view reinstatement was a soft and inadequate option.
5.6.6. Placing Suspended Students in Other Schools:
Where students were indefinitely suspended, principals were responsible for placing them in another school. Some principals felt that this was not difficult because they had good relationships with other principals in the area. One stated that in his experience a student expelled for cannabis use was easier to place than one expelled for violence or persistent disobedience. However, several commented that it was now more difficult to place students in other schools and in turn that they themselves were more reluctant to receive students who had been expelled from other schools for cannabis-related incidents.
When the principal who made the last statement was asked what he thought had caused this change he stated that it was because in the new competitive environment schools could not afford to expose themselves to drug-related incidents that might bring them bad press. Parents did not want their children going to a school which was perceived to have a drug problem. In his view even placement by the Ministry of Education was not always successful because he, like other principals, was reluctant to take such students and indeed on occasion refused to do so. It was unclear what then happened to these students.
When schools find that their rolls have reached a workable maximum they can apply to the Ministry of Education to be classified as having an enrolment scheme. This means that effectively a ceiling is put on the number of students that attend the school. Schools with enrolment schemes cannot be compelled by the Ministry to take in a student suspended from another school. One principal argued that this scheme limited the range of schools to which he could send students while also reducing the pool of schools available to take students suspended from other schools in his area.
Schools did not tend to follow up those students whose suspensions were extended beyond their placement in another school. Once the student was placed elsewhere they were no longer considered the responsibility of the school so it was no longer appropriate to be involved in their case. One principal commented, however, that where a student was expelled they were given access to the schools transition department and careers advisor.
On the other hand, those students who had been taken in because they had been suspended/expelled from other schools for cannabis-related incidents were watched carefully without drawing attention to them. The fact that the student had been suspended was not general knowledge and usually only some staff, such as the student's dean or those in the guidance network, would be informed. Despite the reluctance on the part of some principals to take in such students, those principals who did so commented that for the most part the students did not cause any further problems.
This principal was from the school that did not suspend students and it was unclear whether the implication was that the indefinite suspension process in itself worked, that the new schools more liberal school philosophy helped or that these students were not necessarily troublesome so should not have been suspended.
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