Boards of Trustees' Responses
This report examines the strategies used by some schools to deal with students caught with cannabis. It is based on in-depth interviews with board of trustees chairpersons in ten Auckland secondary or intermediate schools. Schools were selected purposively so that a range of approaches to the issue were covered. The schools stated policies for dealing with students caught with cannabis, the implementation of these policies and the issues arising from these processes for boards are examined.
In all but one school students had been suspended in the first instance by the principal when caught with cannabis. The remaining school did not isolate individuals and punish them but instead identified a group of students considered `at risk of cannabis use and treated it as a health and education issue by requiring them all to attend a seminar on drugs to which families were also invited.
In many of the schools where students were suspended in the first instance, boards of trustees chose to reinstate them, with conditions, after hearing their cases. The conditions assigned depended on the severity of the incident, the students general behaviour and whether the board considered the incident to be an education and health issue, a disciplinary issue or both.
Those conditions aimed at ensuring students received the knowledge and support they needed to promote their educational and physical well being included: the requirement to attend a drug education or drug rehabilitation programme; undertaking a project on drugs; and attending guidance counselling. Those aimed at disciplining the student included: detention; depriving the student of privileges; community service either within or outside the school; separating them temporarily from their peers, particularly during breaks; and establishing behaviour contracts between the student, parent(s) and school. Some schools combined a range of conditions.
The aim of reinstatement with conditions was to get the student to re-evaluate their behaviour without disrupting their education. However, all schools insisted that, if these conditions were not taken seriously by the student, they risked indefinite suspension/expulsion.
Boards of trustees who made the decision to continue suspension indefinitely or expel the student usually did so for more serious incidents, such as supplying cannabis to others, or where there was a history of disruptive behaviour. Where this occurred boards saw it as in the interests of the student and their peers in that it enabled the student to make a new start elsewhere and prevented them from further influencing their peers.
Dilemmas faced by board members when attempting to determine the most appropriate course of action for suspended students whose ongoing management they had to decide on included: weighing up the interests of the student against those of other students and the school; avoiding passing on problems to other schools; being aware that how the incident was dealt with could affect future student enrolments; weighing up the benefits of being open and public about the incident against the costs of public perception that the school had major drug problems; and assessing the relative seriousness of cannabis use by students given the perceived level of use in the wider community.
Schools that dealt with alcohol-related incidents more leniently than cannabis-related incidents did so because alcohol was seen to be more socially acceptable and using cannabis was against the law. Those schools which treated alcohol and cannabis incidents similarly did so because they considered any drug use at school unacceptable, irrespective of its legal status.
All of the secondary schools had drug education taught as part of the health syllabus and a few also had private organisations which came to the school. Respondents from these schools did not feel in a position to comment at length on these programmes. While one of the intermediate schools had not had any such programmes, the other had had the DARE programme the previous year. This school had received comments from some parents that it had made their children more inquisitive about drugs.
Respondents commented that their boards faced a number of other issues throughout the process of dealing with students caught with cannabis. They felt that schools were being asked to deal with what was essentially a societal problem, while there were few if any initiatives undertaken outside schools to deal with the issue. All commented that there were poor links with their local community and there were no joint school/community initiatives to deal with cannabis use by students. Board members often felt that they were not adequately resourced in terms of training, social support or money to be making such important decisions about a students future. In some students cases cannabis use was perceived to be merely a symptom of more general problems for which the student needed assistance. Many felt that there were not enough social agencies or referral centres that specialised in assisting students and schools with these issues. Existing services were perceived to be overworked or difficult to access. Respondents stated that they would like to know more about what other schools did in similar circumstances.
The Board of Trustees Association, the Principals Association and the Post Primary Teachers Association establish networks to facilitate exchange of information about strategies used for dealing with cannabis use by students.
Schools strengthen health promoting policies, conducive to preventing drug use and other problems, within the school environment.
Existing community organisations which provide information and support to schools dealing with cannabis use and related problems of students (e.g., the youth section of Community Alcohol and Drugs Services; Children and Young Persons Service) be strengthened.
Community action initiatives be resourced to strengthen links between school and community and enable development and implementation of joint school/community/media initiatives to deal with recreational drug use problems.
The highly publicised suspension of students from Cambridge High School in both June 1996 and February 1997 highlighted concerns amongst parents, school boards and policy makers about cannabis use in schools (NZ Herald 27/7/96). It also intensified the debates about how best to deal with cannabis use by students within the school environment. While some supported the strict line taken by the school to continue suspensions indefinitely or expel after the initial hearing (NZ Herald 1/7/97), others questioned the appropriateness of this approach (NZ Herald 25/6/97; The Dominion 26/7/96; Listener 8/3/1997:13), and attention was drawn to the softer line taken with those students from the same school caught consuming alcohol (NZ Herald 15/2/97).
Ministry of Education national suspension statistics for the first half of 1997 (January-June) showed that there were 6145 suspensions in total: 1248 (20%) of them for incidents relating to drugs other than alcohol and tobacco, 323 (5%) for alcohol and 234 (4%) for tobacco. There were no specific figures for cannabis-related incidents but it might reasonably be assumed that they would comprise the great majority of those classified under drugs other than alcohol and tobacco. Figures included definite (3 day) suspensions, indefinite suspensions where the student was reinstated by the board and those where they were not reinstated by the board. Of the total suspensions two-thirds were three day suspensions which did not go before the board. This lesser form of suspension was given in the significant majority of alcohol and tobacco incidents. (83% and 89% respectively). However, three day suspensions were given in only 30% of incidents involving drugs other than alcohol and tobacco and, hence, in 70% of such cases an indefinite suspension was given. Of 14 recorded `offence categories this was the only one for which indefinite suspensions outnumbered three day suspensions. No trend data were available for drug-related suspensions since such figures have only been collected since July 1996.
Media attention has tended to focus on those schools which have taken a hard-line on cannabis-related incidents, such as continued suspension (for under 16 year olds) or expulsion. While it seems that immediate temporary suspension of students is common for cannabis incidents, many schools employ a range of strategies for further management rather than extending suspension or expelling. In addition, some schools do not necessarily suspend at all. However, little media attention has been given to these many other management approaches. This research aims to rectify this omission. It was undertaken in order to share information and encourage debate about the various strategies used to deal with cannabis in schools.
The research objectives were:
Schools' policies for cannabis are usually part of an overall drug and alcohol policy. However, some schools may not have a particular drug and alcohol policy, in which case cannabis-related incidents would be dealt with under the policy for student discipline. Such policies are usually developed by the Board of Trustees and have to be set within the legislative parameters of the Education Act 1989. Although schools can state the likely outcome for a particular behaviour, they can not make absolute statements about outcome, since each case must be examined individually and mitigating circumstances must be considered. the Ministry of Educations 1996 guidelines for principals and Boards of Trustees regarding suspension and expulsion of students quoted from the proceedings of a 1990 legal case concerning alcohol use by students which set a precedent in this area. It stated that:
Schools may have a general policy towards alcohol and drugs, but cases of alcohol and drug use must not be resolved automatically in accordance with such policy. Principals and boards instead must carefully consider all the circumstances of each individual case before deciding whether or not individual alcohol related conduct amounts to gross misconduct. It may be troublesome, but it must be done. (Ministry of Education 1996:24)
The Ministry's guidelines also recommend that schools try a number of other measures before resorting to suspension, which should be considered a disciplinary measure of last resort (Ministry of Education 1996:9). A number of alternatives to suspension are suggested.
Under the Education Act 1989, suspension and expulsion can only be used for behaviour that can be classified as gross misconduct. The 1990 legal case which has set the precedent on this issue defined gross misconduct as actions that are striking and reprehensible. However, even in such cases suspension must only be used after due consideration of the case, rather than being an automatic response.
These statutory approaches are designed for the protection of children. They are not to be sacrificed to administrative or disciplinary efficiency, or some supposed need for absolute certainty. Results must not be fixed; they must instead be fair. (Ministry of Education 1996:28).
The principal is the only person who has the authority to suspend a student in the first instance and s/he can make her/his own interpretation of the term gross misconduct, although this is usually guided by the board's policy. If the principal decides to suspend a student, s/he can initiate either a definite or an indefinite suspension. A definite suspension is for a period of 3 days or less. No student can be given a definite suspension more than once in each calendar year. The Board is not involved in this decision but they do receive a written report from the principal, as do the student's parents. An indefinite suspension is for an unspecified period.
In the event of the principal suspending a student under 16 years old indefinitely, the board is required to meet within seven days of the suspension to hear the case. Not all schools have disciplinary committees and where this is the case the whole board must meet. The Education Act 1989 stipulates simply that the `board' must meet to hear the case. The principal is required to send a written report to board members and parents within 24 hours of this hearing. At the hearing the board hears the students case and then decides whether they should be reinstated or whether the suspension should be extended. They might suggest such courses of action as reinstatement of the student with conditions attached, such as a behaviour contract or a requirement to undergo counselling. Although a student under 16 can not be expelled because education is compulsory until 16 years, they may receive an indefinite suspension until their 16th birthday. If the student is 16 years or over, the hearing with the board need not occur until the next scheduled meeting because school is not compulsory for these students. The board will then hear the case and decide on the outcome. In this case the board have the same options as above but can also consider expulsion.
Students and their parents can choose to bring advocates or support people to their hearing. This may be family/whanau members, a lawyer, a member of the Youth Law Project, or some other support person. The Ministry of Education guidelines recommend allowing an appeal. This recommendation goes beyond the Education Act, which makes no mention of an appeal procedure. However, the only forms of appeal available at present are the Ombudsman, who can only make recommendations, and a judicial review through the high courts which is very expensive.
Ten Auckland secondary or intermediate schools that had dealt with the issue of cannabis in the school in the previous year were chosen to take part in this research. In order to cover a range of policy approaches our sampling was purposive (Patton 1990), in that we purposely selected schools whose approaches we believed would differ from each other and cover a range of strategies. Since we did not know in advance the schools particular policy or approach to cannabis we chose schools according to their general approach to health and disciplinary issues assuming that these would be philosophically consistent with their approach to dealing students caught with cannabis. This selection was made through consultation with a number of people working in advisory positions to schools on health issues or related matters. In addition, attention was paid to ensuring that schools were chosen from different geographical areas within Auckland and that the selection included the full socio-economic range of student populations.
In each case the chairperson of the Board of Trustees disciplinary committee or, where there was no such committee, the chairperson of the Board was then invited to participate in the research. The person holding this position was considered likely to offer the best view of the dilemmas, complexities and ambiguities faced when setting and implementing such policies. In retrospect, a limitation of choosing this person, rather than the principal or guidance counsellor, was that the board member only had direct involvement in cases where an indefinite suspension had occurred. Fortunately, in the one school where a cannabis-related incident did not result in suspensions, the chairperson of the board was aware of the process used through a close relationship with the principal and staff.
Prospective participants were first contacted by phone and then sent an information sheet outlining the project and what was involved. All but one discussed the project with other board members and/or the principal before agreeing to participate. Two declined participation, one because the principal felt that there had been "too much research" in the school, and the other because it was not supported by the rest of the board. The board chairpersons of two more schools were then approached, both of whom agreed to participate.
Of the ten schools that took part, two were intermediate schools and the remaining eight were secondary schools, two were single sex schools (one girls and one boys) while the remaining eight were coeducational, and one was a Catholic school integrated into the state system. Geographically, two schools were located in South Auckland, one in the eastern suburbs, three in the central area, two in West Auckland and two on the North Shore. Three of the schools catered for students from throughout Auckland which meant that their student population could not be considered to reflect the area in which the school was located.
Four of the schools were in the process of dealing with cannabis-related incidents at the time of the interview.
Once consent had been obtained, a face-to-face interview was undertaken. The interviews were semi-structured, covering details of the schools drugs policy, how it compared to their policy on alcohol and tobacco, how it was implemented, and difficulties and dilemmas encountered in its implementation. The interviews, which lasted around 45 minutes, were audio-taped and transcribed and the transcriptions were then analysed. Both the interviewing and analysis were undertaken by Sally Abel, an experienced qualitative researcher.
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