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Will they ever learn?

1 May 2014
Keri Welham
This article was published 10 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

If a student turns up to class stoned, they might be kicked out of school. Or they might have a restorative conference with their teachers and whānau, receive drug counselling and health education and be excluded from attending their school ball. Which approach is better for the student, their peers and society? Keri Welham reports.

Harry was expelled from high school for committing burglaries in school time.

The 19-year-old Aucklander, who graduated from treatment at Odyssey House two years ago, started smoking cannabis daily from age 14. The drug formed a solid, predictable background against which he experimented with an ever-changing brew of illicit drugs.

Harry (not his real name) was stoned most days at school, but he says teachers turned a blind eye. By the time he was 17, he was before the courts on charges related to a drug-fuelled all-night crime spree.

What could educators possibly have done to avoid this outcome? Harry believes he would have been well served by early intervention through a programme educationalists call restorative practices – a wraparound suite of initiatives that address the causes of drug use, bolster resilience and buy young people the time to develop good judgement. “Honestly, that’s a great idea,” Harry says. He believes it would have been more beneficial for him than strict rules with hefty consequences ever were. “The important thing to understand is youth at that age are really wanting to try and do new things, and being told not to do something really makes you want to do it.”

Researchers, the Ministry of Education, the Education Minister and the majority of teachers believe young people are best kept in school following a transgression, and the rates of stand-downs, suspensions, expulsions and exclusions are at their lowest in 13 years.

However, Ministry data shows 1,238 young people were expelled or excluded from state and integrated schools in 2012. Of those, around 250 students were kicked out because of issues with drugs. Add in a buffer for the undocumented exclusions and expulsions from private schools, where consequences are traditionally more punitive, and drugs in schools start to look like a substantial problem for society.

It is up to each school’s board of trustees to decide which punishments are appropriate and acceptable in its community. Some schools use suspensions or stand-downs sparingly and favour restorative practices that support the young person with counselling, programmes of drug testing, health education and perhaps time learning by correspondence. Others continue to follow punitive zero-tolerance approaches, which are popular with parents, where punishment always involves time banned from school.

But does the hard line work? Is the key to addressing drugs in schools really as easy as closing the gates to any young person caught carrying, using or being under the influence of drugs in school time?

John Paul College Principal Patrick Walsh says yes.

“We don’t make any apologies for that.”

The Rotorua school once expelled a student for a first offence of dealing drugs in school. Walsh says the student’s behaviour was not only illegal but was also posing a risk to other students, which would not be tolerated.

“Naturally, parents have a legitimate expectation that schools are drug free. They don’t expect their kids to be offered drugs in school,” Walsh says.

John Paul College considers incidents involving drug dealing, use or possession “gross misconduct”, for which the punishment includes an appearance before the board and at least some time away from school.

There have been no drug incidents at the college this year. There was one last year and one the year before. In a school of 1,100 students, Walsh says the low incidence of drug-related issues is proof zero tolerance and visible consequences work.

He acknowledges there would be students in his school who use drugs on weekends, but he says they know not to bring that offending to school.

“At some point, you have to take a punitive approach because drugs in schools have a big impact in the community,” he says. “We have to be very strong on that because that’s just the expectation of our community.”

Walsh accepts excluding a student from school can set off a ‘spiralling down’ in terms of that young person’s engagement, education and social development. The best option for a student is rehabilitation, he says.

But he feels duty bound to present clear boundaries for the other 1,099 young people in his care.

“The restorative approach is the right approach. But, unless [students] can see there are consequences for their actions, they can develop a mindset of impunity.”

If a young person is spared removal from school and is instead guided through a rehabilitative process, Walsh says the student body does not see the mercy or compassion in that approach.

“They see it as a weak stance.”

Most students removed from school for a few days, or more, are aged 13–15 and are disproportionately Mäori and male. Official Information Act data shows there were around 1,100 stand-downs and 800 suspensions for drug-related incidents in New Zealand schools in 2012.

Education Counts figures for 2012 show that, for every 1,000 state and integrated school students, 1.7 are stood down, 1.1 are suspended, 0.3 are excluded and 0.4 are expelled for drug-related behaviour, including substance abuse.

Extrapolated out over a country of learners and accounting for all those never caught or dealt with by other means, those small figures reflect a major blight on the learning environment. Australia’s National Council on Drugs claims entire Mondays are now being lost in schools across the country as teachers deal with the fallout of a weekend of teenage drug taking and drinking. New Zealand educators interviewed by Matters of Substance echoed that experience.

International research has identified the main motivations for drug use are escaping developmental distress, self-managing body and spirit, conforming to social norms and creating individual identity.

The motivations are varied and so are the options available to schools.

The Education Ministry says any short or long-term removal of a student must comply with the relevant sections of the Education Act 1989 and the Education (Stand-down, Suspension, Exclusion, and Expulsion) Rules 1999. This year, two new documents entered the landscape – the Education Amendment Act 2013 and the Education (Surrender, Retention, and Search) Rules 2013.

It’s no wonder principals like Oxford Area School’s Bob Norrish and Kaiapoi High School’s Bruce Kearney have publicly said they’re not clear on some of the legalities.

In recent months, Oxford Area School and several others in Canterbury have brought in drug detection dogs through a company called Risk Management Group. The Press revealed the company had conducted drug raids on a dozen Canterbury schools in the year to February 2014.

Norrish told the paper he wasn’t sure the raids would become a regular activity. “I need to look at the new search and seize legislation to see if it fits in with that.”

And Kaiapoi’s Bruce Kearney said, “When you bring drug dogs in, you are subjecting all of your students to that, and I’m not 100 percent sure how effective it is. I’m no longer 100 percent sure how legal it is.”

Key aspects of the Education Amendment Act 2013 relate to searches and confiscation of property in schools. Last year, the Ministry oversaw development of Guidelines for the surrender and retention of property and searches. These are sometimes referred to by educators as the ‘search and seize’ guidelines.

While the term ‘guidelines’ insinuates the advice on offer is an optional consideration, schools are legally required to have regard for the guidelines when dealing with issues such as drugs in schools.

Martin Henry is an advisory officer with the New Zealand Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) and was formerly a deputy principal at a Wellington secondary school. His work with the PPTA focuses on restorative practices.

Henry says a board of trustees can use dogs to search school property, because that property is owned by the Crown, but the dogs cannot be used to search people or their bags. Many schools make students sign a waiver when they rent a school locker, enabling those lockers to be included in any drug search.

“If you’ve got someone bringing dope in to the school, stopping that dope is important. But [we] don’t want people searched without suspicion.”

In the preamble to the guidelines, the difficult decisions facing schools are addressed:

“There can be no definitive way of dealing with each and every scenario and principals and boards will most often be required to look to their own experience and judgement. Often the circumstances will be straight-forward and responses will be routine, but there will be occasions when the best course of action is not obvious. Where a range of responses is available, boards and staff are encouraged to exercise judgement that is based on what is reasonable in the circumstances.”

Patrick Walsh of John Paul College was involved in the development of the guidelines. He says the law was previously unclear and the new rules represent “another tool in the toolbox” for schools as they fight drugs. The power to search school property is welcome. “We hope not to exercise those powers, but the fact the students know we have them acts as a deterrent.”

While some schools have specific drug policies, others rely on pastoral policies or the ‘serious misconduct’ clauses within other policies.

The Ministry of Education is developing a model of restorative practices for schools as part of Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L – see sidebar on page 13).

Education Minister Hekia Parata told Matters of Substance, “We’ve learned from experience here and overseas that restorative approaches are more effective than punitive responses when it comes to reducing challenging behaviour, such as drug-related incidents, and getting kids working successfully again in the classroom.”

Parata says early feedback on PB4L has been positive. “We’re seeing evidence in schools using it of improved student retention and NCEA Level 1 achievement and a drop in stand-down rates.”

Education researcher Jenny Robertson believes restorative practices and programmes such as PB4L make teachers feel better about themselves but may not necessarily deliver on the promise of ensuring a higher level of learning.

“Where’s the evidence that change in behaviour is achieving better learning outcomes? What I have seen would suggest it’s not.”

Robertson, author of a 2013 review of alcohol and other drug (AOD) education programmes for young people, believes, “There are probably still a small number of users where expulsion from school is actually the best thing.”

One controversial tool used by many schools is section 27 of the Education Act – an attendance clause used to keep a young person out of school for a few days without affecting their academic record.

The PPTA’s Martin Henry says a section 27-negotiated return to school can involve voluntary drug testing. Some students are relieved – the certainty of drug testing can help them deflect peer pressure to continue using.

The focus for most schools using section 27 is to ensure that, when a young person eventually leaves school, it’s with dignity and to transition to options that are meaningful.

Then there’s the issue of the ‘Kiwi Suspension’. Henry says this is common in private schools where a school will hush up a drug issue if the student involved simply leaves the school. The child leaves the school, seemingly voluntarily, and enrols in another school without any record of the incident. The school can then also maintain its own blemish-free record.

Dominic Killalea is Deputy Principal of Wellington High School. His approach to pastoral care while Acting Principal was evident in his handling of large-scale drug use on a school trip last year. He told The Dominion Post, “I don’t want a kid that smoked dope to think they’re a terrible person. I want them to be a better person.”

Killalea told Matters of Substance he normally dealt with around 10 drug-related incidents a year. Only in extreme cases, such as drug dealing or repeated drug use, would students be suspended.

However, in 2013, 26 teenagers were found to have smoked marijuana on a school ski trip. There were 105 students and 11 adults on the trip. The drug use was uncovered when a parent contacted the school to say their child had reported trying cannabis for the first time while on the trip.

Killalea says a blanket solution would not have fairly addressed the range of culpability. Those who supplied the drugs had to be considered to have done something worse than those who were standing in a circle when cannabis came around and didn’t have the fortitude or inclination to refuse it.

The school ran restorative conferences for 15 of the students. They were kept home for 3–5 days. The majority were dealt with by section 27. They returned to school after negotiating with the board and drawing up agreements that included punitive measures. The year 13s, for instance, were excluded from the school ball. None of the 26 was allowed on any further field trips for the rest of the year, and inclusion on field trips this year is at Killalea’s discretion. Most of the students offered to take part in voluntary drug testing to prove their ongoing adherence to school rules. Only one student was suspended.

“I didn’t feel I was getting total engagement from the kid and the family.”

Killalea emailed the school community about the ski trip and received almost 200 replies of support from parents. He received two emails that criticised his restorative practices.

None of the 26 students was involved in either of the two drug incidents the school dealt with in the first term of this year. A 2012 Scottish cohort study suggested a sense of “connection” to a school’s values and ethos helped protect young people from illegal drug use. In fact, connection was a stronger indicator of protection from drug use than either truancy levels or academic success.

Killalea says his students seemed proud of the school’s restorative response to the ski trip incident. It appeared to foster a sense of belonging and pride in the school’s ethos.

It is rare for students to be found carrying drugs. Killalea says he more commonly deals with students who turn up to class stoned.

He usually asks them outright if they are stoned. If they admit to having smoked up before class and seem genuinely sorry, he arranges a restorative conference involving the teacher, parents, a facilitator, Killalea and sometimes classmates. They develop a restorative agreement with a number of conditions, such as voluntary drug testing to prove adherence to the school’s rules.

If the student denies using drugs, it gets much more tricky. Where the parents are supportive, a family might decide to get the young person’s urine checked by a doctor to show whether THC levels have spiked in recent hours. If high THC levels are detected, the young person might be suspended by the board. When parents fight school suggestions to gain clarity around the young person’s drug use, suspension is also likely.

Killalea sometimes feels like he’s actually suspending the parents.

He has known students whose drug use has been sanctioned at home or even encouraged. One student was found to be dealing drugs at school, and Police – who must be informed – confirmed the father was also a known dealer. When another student was caught, he told Killalea he first smoked pot when he was five.

“Do we just turf him out? Because [if we do] that’s a whole lot of problems for society.”

He has only ever expelled one student over drugs. The boy had been at the school two weeks when he turned up with a bag of weed. Killalea says he had no tolerance for someone who was new to the school community, showed such disregard for his new schoolmates and teachers and was obviously looking to compromise the safety of others by dealing drugs.

John Paul College’s Patrick Walsh did the exact same thing for a first-time drug-dealing incident in his school, but he framed it as unashamed zero tolerance. By contrast, Wellington High’s Dominic Killalea is somewhat haunted by the fact he expelled that student.

“I’ve always felt a little bit guilty about that one.”

Killalea says Wellington High is a decile 9 school in the vicinity of high-density state and council housing. Drug dealers walk up and down the school boundary pushing drugs. In that environment, educators have to be determined.

“For the most part, if a student’s getting stoned and turning up to class, there’s an issue there. I do feel it’s our responsibility to help.

“We’re not a druggie school – just prepared to deal with our problems… We’ll look after our kids as much as possible.”

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) was ratified by New Zealand in 1993.

Article 16 of UNCROC states: “No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.”

Article 16 is relevant to an environment where mandatory drug testing is no longer allowed but drug dog sweeps are becoming routine.

New Zealand’s Deputy Children’s Commissioner Dr Justine Cornwall says she would like to see schools assessing each case of drug use individually, working with whänau to find solutions and linking families with rehabilitative support. “These situations are rarely black and white.”

She says school can be an important protective factor for a young person. Jim Matheson agrees. Matheson is a New Zealand Drug Foundation Board member and a former Ministry of Education operational policy manager for student support. He says it’s essential young people are supported while they grow and are given space to make errors without threat of punishments that have lasting impact.

“Kids do silly things. The denial of school is a punishment which completely outweighs the error of judgement.

“This isn’t about tolerating bad behaviour, [it’s] more about having a measured response.”

Matheson says education is essential in battling teenage drug use. Health education in the curriculum must explain the negative developmental and social impacts and the wider health implications for young people using cannabis and other drugs.

Dunedin’s Mirror Services has a long history of providing services to young people with drug issues and is currently developing a new service for the Southern region as part of the Prime Minister’s Youth Exemplar contract. Mirror’s day programme is full of young people who have been excluded from school, some of them for as long as three years, and have severe substance use issues.

Director Deb Fraser says expelling or excluding young people from school for breaches of the school’s drug rules rarely works in terms of curbing drug use. But she often sees scenarios where small-time drug use is overlooked and ignored in school settings, so it escalates into more substantial drug use. Then, when the drug use is discovered, school communities sometimes “completely over-react”, and the consequences are much more severe than circumstances warrant.

Ideally, Fraser says, drug use should be identified as early as possible, and the response should involve appropriate screening and intervention.

And there are times when all the young person is guilty of is youthful exuberance. She knows a young man who was expelled for taking his brother’s bong to school and another who took a bag of chopped up houseplants to school and pretended it was drugs.

She says school boards are dealing with a young person’s record – their educational history – and the impact it will have for the rest of their lives should not be overlooked. Boards face school populations that are a cross-section of society – from those with substance addictions to those who just want to cause mischief and enjoy getting out of it. The punishment might be the same, but at one end of the scale are young people who need robust therapeutic interventions.

Repercussions must be consistent, but not one size fits all. And those repercussions must be seen to be just as strict and supportive for teachers found using drugs.

Fraser says drug education is hugely valuable, but it must be tailored to each stage and age group. Values and beliefs change as young people mature. It would be valuable for young people to learn about developing positive self-image, social skills and coping strategies such as refusal skills that could be used in a social settings.

How do you say you don’t want a toke?

Katrina Casey is the Education Ministry’s Deputy Secretary Sector Enablement and Support for New Zealand’s 750,000 schoolchildren. New Zealand has an alternative education programme that, at any one time, can cater for about 1,900 young people who have been marginalised by the system. This might mean they don’t fit in socially, they have disruptive behaviour or they have specific education needs not met by mainstream schooling. Casey says alternative education is not intended for – and rarely used by – those excluded from school.

Instead, the first option for an excluded student is to find another school to take them. If that fails, they often join the ranks of the 14,000 Kiwi kids studying with Te Aho o te Kura Pounamu – The Correspondence School.

Casey says stand-downs and suspensions are not a board of trustees’ or principal’s preferred action, but it depends on the situation.

“Everyone would draw the line at physical assaults on other children.” Responses to broken school rules have changed over the past 30 years, Casey says, but so has society. “Commonly, both parents are working, so [suspension] is a more complex issue than it would have been 20 or 30 years ago.”

Ben Birks Ang is Amplify! and Stand Up! team leader at Auckland’s Odyssey House. His teams work in 20 mainstream schools, nine alternative education programmes and a teenage parent unit.

“What we’ve noticed is, when somebody gets excluded from school or expelled, they have less structured activity so they are not 8.30am to 3.15pm, at school [and] occupied. Often their situation worsens, and other young people start getting pulled in to that lifestyle too.”

Birks Ang says many young people start using drugs to control the strong emotions they feel as teenagers. Unfortunately, drugs are a very effective anaesthetic.

Young people facing boards for stand-down or suspension hearings are often nervous yet staunch, he says. It can be hard for them to see the anguish and shame they are causing their families. There are also a small number of families who educators hate to call because they know the young person could be physically punished for getting in to trouble.

“For a lot of students, school is one of the safest places they go to.”

Every breach of school rules should have consequences, but Birks Ang says losing access to education should never be among them.

“They need consequences, boundaries and support to understand the gravity of the situation, but getting an education shouldn’t be one of the bargaining chips.”


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