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6.5. Comparison with alcohol and tobacco

Although the use of alcohol and tobacco was also forbidden at all schools, in most cases schools were firmer with students caught with cannabis than with alcohol or tobacco. The justification for this was that cannabis was an illicit drug and students needed to understand the consequences of breaking the law. It is illegal to sell or supply alcohol to those under 20 years and tobacco to those under 16 years in New Zealand/Aotearoa. It is also illegal for these age groups to purchase these drugs, but it is not illegal to possess or consume them. In addition, it was felt that the use of alcohol and tobacco was more socially acceptable. Most of the respondents felt that alcohol was not as big an issue in their schools as cannabis was. But one asked the question:

Do we hear more about marijuana in schools because there's more of it, or do we hear it because alcohol isn't [considered] a big issue in the community?

A few of the schools treated cannabis incidents in the same manner as those involving alcohol and tobacco. The legal status of the substance was considered less of an issue than the act of defiance in breaking school rules or the effect of use on the student’s ability to learn.

We can't punish kids for doing illegal things. We're not a legally sanctioning body, we're a school...Regardless of whether it's legal or illegal, it's still quite unacceptable to be intoxicated at school.

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6.6. School-based drug education programmes

All respondents were asked about drug education programmes in their school. All the secondary schools had a drug education component as part of the health syllabus. Some had also had FADE or Life Education visit the school. Some respondents felt they were not in a position to comment on the effectiveness of these programmes. Those who did comment gave a mixed response.

One of the intermediate schools had not had any drug education programmes. The board chairperson saw this as a problem and had been attempting to book an organisation to run a programme in her school. The other intermediate school had had the DARE programme the previous year for the first time. The respondent from this school commented that the only incident of cannabis the school had experienced had been among students who had undergone the programme. In addition, the school had received some comment from parents.

We had a few parents complain about it. They felt that their children were unaware of drugs before the DARE programme started and that after the programme they were more inquisitive.

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6.7. General issues for the board

In discussing with respondents how their schools and boards dealt with cannabis-related issues, it became clear that, as well as difficulties to do with decisions about a student’s future, boards faced a number of more general practical difficulties.

Schools having to deal with a societal problem:

A common comment was that schools were put into the impossible situation of trying to deal with what was essentially a societal problem. Several respondents stated that cannabis-related problems in schools reflected a wider community problem with the drug and that, while there was little evidence of community initiatives, schools were expected to deal with it. Particular difficulties arose where the school was expected to deal with cannabis use by students whose parents were probably frequent users. All of the respondents stated that their school had loose links with the local community or the community of parents. In particular, the three schools which drew their students from outside the immediate area had little sense of local community. As a result there were no joint community and school initiatives for dealing with cannabis use and board members appeared to feel isolated in their task of dealing with it. In addition, respondents from schools in lower socio-economic areas commented that because there were poor social services in the community, teachers and boards ended up performing social work activities at times.

I still believe that the school has actually been lumbered with a lot of home stuff, stuff from the community, a lot of social breakdowns. And I don't think that is fair, that school should be paying a price for it as well. If we are going to be lumbered with social problems, we need to be able to get in effective school counsellors. We need to be able to get effective help for our children… And preventative help, not just when something happens in the school, but before it happens. We need to strengthen our children to be able to say ‘No’. If it doesn't happen at home, it has to happen within the school. But really the school should not be made socially responsible for their upbringing at home. Because all these things should be taught at home. In fact the schools have to break a lot of habits that are learnt at home.

The government says that the community needs to be responsible for their own. Now I believe that to be true. I also believe that the government needs to provide those community groups with enough money to be able to deal with it. I know for a fact that many of those community groups are falling down because of government changes. And it's so hard for the teachers to be teachers, you know, because they're not so sure when to stop being social workers... Because you can't rely on [the Children and Young Persons Service] any more, as well. Government agencies, you can't rely on them because you're over-worked all the time and they're understaffed... The teachers are half the time playing social workers, running around taking kids home, running around picking kids up.

Board members are lay-people

Another common comment was that boards were not adequately equipped to deal well with drug-related issues. They had limited options and resources and no special training or expertise in this area. Advice was sought from staff members, the school counsellor and the principal, but ultimately the decision rested with the board. A number of participants commented that they felt ‘helpless’ or ‘useless’ in some situations because of these factors.

I guess sometimes we feel a little bit helpless in what we can do, both for the students and those others at the school, and what avenues there are available to us. Suspension is not always in the best interests of our school or the school that they are going on to. …There are just some times when you really just don't know quite what to do.... We are very much lay people in this area

We don’t really have a lot that we can do. I wish at times that we could be more helpful.

Often I feel completely useless in saying "you've done something wrong, we'll smack you over the hands but you can't come back into school". They need to have somebody that can turn them around and get them back into school.

Many respondents were keen to hear how other schools deal with the issues.

Lack of support services:

Most respondents commented that there were gaps in the support available to schools to deal with cannabis and other drug use in schools. Although some had used community drug services, several mentioned the need for an outside agency that specialised in providing support and advice for both the board members and the students themselves.

I think I would be quite right in saying that all my board would like to see a better directive on drug use in the school. There is not enough information on how to handle it.... Basically there seems to be not a lot of understanding of where we stand legally on these issues.

I would like to see some sort of place where some of these kids could be sent to be counselled, if that's what's needed. Somebody that is professionally competent in giving them the correct information... And it's really not an issue of passing the buck. It's opening the right doors for them... I think we should be able to give them encouragement to try and correct their problems, whatever those problems may be. ..[But] there's no funding, there's nowhere to send them and I think this is probably a huge cry from most high schools.

I think [we need] financial resources so that we can buy in resources that we can use to help relieve staff of a fairly heavy burden of supervision of wayward children, perhaps, and counselling expertise.

In addition, in some cases cannabis use was considered a symptom of more general behavioural problems, which schools were also poorly equipped to deal with.

I have to say that frequently these offences are not in isolation but are often the result of a history of unacceptable behaviour which has not resulted in the pupil coming before the board but has caused them to have a number of detentions etc.

I'd like to see more education about not only drugs and alcohol, but about problem students. How to deal with them; where to send them; who to send them to. And more funding available in the education system to deal with these types of things. They're not going to go away. ..You send them out of school, they get into the police system , they end up at [Paremoremo Prison]. Usually they've got one road to go down. So really, they talk about prison rehabilitation, I think we need to have rehabilitation of kids within the school system before they get out into the workforce….. Whether it’s drugs or alcohol, I always feel that we're there to educate and we're not doing that.

I think our school undergoes a fairly thorough process. I sometimes question though whether or not schools have the resources to deal with every situation: financial, human and legal…. I think more and more use is being made of [extended] suspensions which means that you can't deal with it within the school environment. Often the pupils that are coming to us, whether they have been taking alcohol or drugs or smoking or are there for violence or whatever, are coming with a list [of misdemeanours] already. Truancy is quite wide spread. They have been on Dean’s detention every single week, they are in trouble in their class, doing very poorly in general within the school. Actually, not in all cases. Some of them are quite bright and doing quite well. But they are in trouble with the school and the system.

Long hours of unpaid work:

Another issue raised was the amount of time boards of trustees spent dealing with such cases. All of those interviewed indicated that their board took the issue of cannabis in schools seriously. Much time and effort was put into ensuring that the student received a thorough and fair hearing. This work was over and above that required for regular board duties but board members were paid nothing extra. Sometimes the process involved several meetings which could go on late into the night.

It was getting very late. It was 1.00 o'clock in the morning.... This is the first meeting. We had more than one meeting.

It must have been the August holidays last year. We spent the holidays there. We all came back totally wrung out. But all the board was prepared to do it.

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6.8. The future

Despite these dilemmas and concerns all respondents felt that their boards did a good job within the constraints of their limited resources. All felt that their processes were fair and that the members of their boards had worked well together. When questioned on their feelings about the future, all but one felt reasonably positive because of a perceived increase in community awareness about the extent of cannabis use and related problems. The other respondent felt that society was not taking the problems of cannabis seriously enough, that young people did not have a realistic understanding of potential problems from cannabis use and that this portended future difficulties for schools.

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7. Discussion

The schools involved in this study used a number of different approaches to deal with students caught with cannabis at school, many of which may be of value to those schools which have not explored them. The school that chose to not suspend in the first instance based this decision on the view that cannabis use occurred within a context of peers and was therefore best dealt with by involving that wider group in a constructive manner rather than isolating individuals for punishment. Because this approach was consistent with the general school philosophy it appeared to work well. The message that cannabis would not be tolerated in school was given clearly to both the group of students and their families/whanau without causing major disruption to the students’ education. At the same time school counselling services were available in case individual students felt they needed support or guidance.

In the other schools a number of interventions were used as conditions of reinstatement following an initial suspension. These conditions ranged from those which focused on the health and well being of the student to those which were more punitive in nature. Where the incident was viewed as a health issue the conditions of reinstatement were considered a means to educate the student about the implications of cannabis use and to address other issues which may had contributed to their involvement. They included the requirement to attend a drug education or drug rehabilitation programme, to undertake a project on drugs and/or receive counselling or guidance. Where the incident was seen as a disciplinary issue the conditions were clearly punitive. These included undertaking a programme of community service; depriving the student of privileges; separating them from their peers; and/or establishing behaviour contracts between student, parents and staff. Some conditions, such as community service or detentions which were undertaken during breaks, aimed to temporarily remove the student from the influence of their peers until they had had time to understand the implications of the incident. Some schools viewed cannabis incidents from both a health and a discipline perspective and set out conditions accordingly. In general, the aim of all conditions of reinstatement was to make the student reconsider their actions without causing major disruption to their schooling.

When deciding whether to reinstate a student or extend suspension board members were keenly aware that the student’s future lay in their hands and that this had to be balanced with a range of other considerations, such as the safety of and message given to other children, the reputation of the school, and the resources available to support chosen strategies. Where a student was reinstated it was felt that the initial suspension and the conditions attached to their reinstatement would serve as a sufficient shock to change their behaviour. The decision to extend suspension or expel was not always considered the ideal solution and some respondents were concerned that this was only transferring the problem elsewhere. Where it did occur it was seen to be in the student’s best interests, by removing them from the adverse influence of peers, or in the interests of her/his fellow students.

This research revealed that the demands placed on schools and board members to deal with cannabis use in schools were sometimes greater than they were equipped for. Boards were being expected to make important decisions about students’ lives with very few practical and financial resources available to them. Although they made creative use of a range of strategies and these seemed to be sufficient to deal with less serious incidents, there appeared to be a lack of facilities and agencies which specialised in drug-related issues to which they could turn for advice or support or refer students in more serious cases. In addition, where cannabis use was symptomatic of more general behaviour problems boards sometimes felt at a loss as to how best to deal with the student. Those community services which were available were considered understaffed, poorly resourced, or difficult to access. In some cases it may be that boards were not aware of what facilities were available to assist them, in which case there is need that this information be made available to them. Schools appeared to have poor links with and support from their local communities and there was a lack of joint community/school initiatives to deal with the issue of cannabis use at schools.

In considering what measures might be undertaken to assist schools to deal with cannabis use by their students an examination of the literature is useful. The literature on strategies to prevent drug-related problems suggests that strategies aimed at changing individual behaviour are not in themselves effective and that they need to be backed up by a consistent and supportive policy environment and community support (Abel et al 1992). Evaluations of school based drug education programmes have consistently found that, while they may increase knowledge, they do not reduce use (Gerstein and Green 1993; Moskowitz 1988). In their comprehensive review of the literature on drug use prevention programmes Gerstein and Green (1993) concluded that school based drug education programmes which focused only on increasing knowledge about the effects of drugs or improving interpersonal skills and self esteem were largely ineffective at preventing use. An evaluation of the Life education programme in Australia, which was based on these approaches, also raised questions about its efficacy in public health terms (Hawthorne et al 1995). In particular, a number of evaluations of drug education programmes, which advocate abstinence and depict use as abuse, have shown them to be ineffective at changing drug use behaviour (Erickson 1997).

Although unevaluated, the recent shift in some programmes from classroom interventions to changes in the general school environment was endorsed by Gerstein and Green who saw it as "consistent with the growing recognition of the need to support educational interventions on the drug problem with broader policy and environmental changes and to engage parents, community and other social forces" (1993:102). In accordance with this view Hannifin (1989) argued that New Zealand drug education programmes needed to be bicultural, well co-ordinated and involve the local community.

One way of involving the local community is through community action programmes. Community action programmes have become increasingly popular as initiatives for dealing with drug-related problems and are a developing research field in a number of Western countries (Giesbrecht et al 1990; Greenfield and Zimmerman 1993; Winick and Larson 1997). These programmes move away from placing the blame and responsibility for drug use problems solely on individuals and their families and, rather, promote community ownership of the problems and solutions. They acknowledge that social context and broader politico-economic factors have an important influence on drug use and that use is "embedded in community norms and support systems" (Winick and Larson 1997:756). These programmes aim to strengthen liaison between schools, subgroups within the community, local government, health and social agencies, the police, the justice system and other key players. They also aim to mobilise communities and co-ordinate their efforts to develop and control measures to reduce drug related problems. Measures are usually broad based but may include specific initiatives, such as school based drug education programmes (Winick and Larson 1997: 755). These programmes tend to be most effective where longer term structural changes are effected (Stewart in press).

In New Zealand a community action programme had a positive effect on community support for effective alcohol policies (Casswell et al 1989). Community action has also been used as a strategy to reduce alcohol-related traffic injury amongst Maori (Stanley and Casswell 1993, 1994a; 1994b; 1995; 1996). In a process evaluation of a U.S. community-based programme aimed at preventing and reducing adolescent drug-related problems Harachi et al (1996) concluded that, provided communities had access to enough knowledge, resources, guidance and technical support, they could be mobilised to undertake broad-based community endeavours which might also reduce other adolescent problems, such as truancy, delinquency, violence and teenage pregnancy

A number of points made and issues raised in this research suggest that community action projects could be useful for dealing with cannabis use in schools. Cannabis use in schools was seen to be part of a wider societal issue as well as part of more general behavioural problems for some of the individual students concerned. Community action projects would place both the general issue of cannabis use in schools and the behaviour of individual students into their wider social or community context and allow solutions to be developed accordingly. It would involve resourcing schools (students, parents, staff and boards) and key community organisations to develop strategies most appropriate to their students and their particular communities. Such strategies would be based on community knowledge and evidence-based research.

In conclusion, a range of strategies exist for dealing with individual students caught with cannabis in school. Boards and their schools which have not considered some of these to date may find them useful in the future. In addition, these initiatives need to be augmented by initiatives aimed at strengthening local community networks and the wider policy environment.

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October 1997