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Cannabis and Schools
Principals' Responses

5.5. The Distinction Between Guidance and Discipline

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.

There are probably 10 kids about whom there are allegations that `he's got a dope habit' and there's been a drop off in the motivation. And I'll talk to the kids and if some other kids say 'yeah', ... that's when I'll get to the stage of writing to the parents.

We have a male guidance counsellor and a part time female guidance counsellor and a female social worker/ youth worker.... They would be aware among their clientele of students who are using drugs that we're not aware of, who don't come to our attention for disciplinary reasons and whom they don't disclose to us for confidentiality reasons.

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.

We're aware of the signs of cannabis. The children with their red eyes, the ones who are coming in whose behaviour changed, who are hyper for various reasons. And we just make the enquiries that are necessary. On a couple of occasions the kid's been misbehaving and we've gone home and talked to the parents and said, "Look, we wonder whether they're becoming involved in cannabis - maybe you'd better make some enquiries", and they're very appreciative..... We share it with the parents. We've become a bit of a social welfare agency in that respect.

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.

You see, the fundamental thing of schools is that if someone has a cannabis problem, then that's none of my business in terms of the school's discipline network. I mean, we have all of these health worker supports to deal with people who are cannabis users out of school. Just like we have resources to deal with people who are alcohol users and that sort of thing. Now the issue of cannabis and suspension in schools is actually an issue of school discipline - being able to do your job. You cannot teach intoxicated students. No matter what they're intoxicated with, you cannot teach them. And you cannot have children challenging the authority of the school with intoxicants or other drugs......The job of a school is the learning of young people. We have pastoral things to support learning. We have plenty of young people with addiction problems themselves, with user families and all that sort of thing and they're entitled to the best support we can give them. Where the heavy handed discipline falls is when they bring it into the school, when they are buying it in the school, and using it in the school.

I think the two are separate. I think there must always be health education on a whole range of things..... The disciplinary response though, to me, is not linked to the education process. Students must know the consequences of their actions in terms of disciplinary matters and I think they're quite separate.

5.6. Schools' Management of a Cannabis Incident

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.

We have really good relationships with the kids. I think the students are very open. If [the deputy principal] says to the students "Are you smoking dak?" they'll probably say "Yes". Whereas, where the relationship's a fairly negative one between the teacher and the student, that often doesn't happen.... I think in some ways we're lucky because we've got quite a good control. I think some schools are afraid of losing a hold on things and that's why they take those extreme measures for the first offences.... They're really concerned and I can understand what it must be like in those schools. But here I don't believe we need to take that line because we have got a good handle on what's going on. So we feel more secure ...And I think that there is trust between students and staff.

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 school’s reputation and the safety of other students, and parents expected the school to take a firm stand.

Schools have some kind of responsibility to have a bottom line for safe behaviour. They also have to be seen to be upholding the law.

One, it's a crime in New Zealand and therefore it's a serious offence so we believe it is an act of gross misconduct that is extremely serious. The second thing is a survey from parents who responded quite strongly that that policy is what they expect in the school.

Bringing cannabis to school, or any illicit drugs, is a very serious offence and I think to gloss over it isn't giving the right messages to the children. They've got to realise it's serious. I'm a great believer in children learning consequence - that actions have consequences. It needn't necessarily be horrendous but if they do something which is wrong there is a consequence. If they do something which is good there's a consequence.

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.

Something like that has to come up before the board so the parents are involved, the children are involved and the board's involved. With a three day suspension you don't get the parents involved and you certainly don't get the board involved. I'm a great believer that for a suspension to work you've got to get all the parties involved and quite often it's one time when you can actually get parents coming up to the school. It's a way of forcing their hand to come up, to actually be confronted with "These are the concerns. Now what can we do to work with you to solve them?".

5.6.3. The Board of Trustees Hearing:

In the nine schools which gave unspecified suspensions the student’s 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.

We found out where they were coming from.... and I felt it opened up channels of communication which weren't there before . As a result I now know the two people involved. If they come in again it won't be the 'us versus them' attitude which we've had in the past. They realise where we're coming from and we've all got the interests of the children at heart.

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:

We're two things - we're a school with a very strong guidance network and a real commitment to our students but we're not at all permissive about cannabis because it's so 'anti' education.

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.

When you're looking at the category of kids who are suspected of being reasonably heavy users, the board probably table this with the parents and the students in the interview and give the family an opportunity to make a commitment to do something about it. So in that instance the primary concern is with the student's health. There's not much point reinstating somebody if attention is not given in this area because one of the grounds for reinstatement should be reasonable confidence that it won't happen again.

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 willingness of the board to look hard at reinstating students for first time drug offences is one that I support, although each case is judged on its merits and in the case of a first time offender who, say for example, was dealing heavily, bringing deal bags in, getting money and operating quite a wide area, I would recommend expulsion. But you look at each case individually. I'm happy with the board's stance.

There is a hierarchy of involvement. Obviously sale and supply, bringing it into the school for money is at the top of the list. And then just bringing it into the school is the next one and then actually purchasing it and then using it and then being associated with people using it. So there is a clear hierarchy of offences which has to do basically with the intent and then within that intent there are the levels of involvement.

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.

One of the factors influencing reinstatement terms is the deterrent aspect. In other words the other students need to be able to see that there are disciplinary consequences beyond the suspension. Because if you're going to adopt a policy of apparently reinstating for first time offences I think the board feels that merely to reinstate with no disciplinary consequences beyond the process of suspension is not enough. So hence the school community service and loss of privileges and confinements and so on.

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.

We certainly make sure that the terms for reinstatement involving things like school community service and loss of privileges, in other words the disciplinarian provisions, are enforced. But because the drug education and counselling outcomes rely more on the voluntary commitment of the student, we're less in a position to enforce or compel. ... You can only encourage in that area I think.

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.

Any young person who is reinstated is reinstated on a contract. The board members, who permitted the reinstatement, then meet with them subsequently for an evaluation of how things are going. But after a certain period of time when stability has clearly been regained the kid just resumes a normal role as a student in good standing ..... There is always a follow-up and evaluation of where they're at. We're very conscious that we're dealing with young people and all of this is actually about learning. Once you can see that they've been tracking upwards, that stability has been achieved, then they basically just sort of drop off the list and all is well and it was a folly of youth.

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.

Generally I think the school succeeds pretty well in keeping the tabs on kids. All the systems that we have here tend to contribute towards the students actually being known for themselves and for their strengths and weaknesses. I mean I had never been in a school like this for that degree of knowingness. It staggered me when I first came here. And that helps.

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:

If caught with cannabis - that's in possession of it, caught smoking it or caught dealing in cannabis - they are in every case suspended and they're referred to the Board Disciplinary Committee. We're mindful of the Palmerston North case [see Introduction] and so we realise we need to use our discretion and treat every case on its merits. We do that and then we expel or indefinitely suspend them.

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.

We maintain a strong policy from a disciplinary point of view. Because, even though students are suspended and even though students may have to leave school, it's not the end of the world.... Because they may have to move school doesn't stop the educative process. Education can continue in another school. It certainly is a bit of a problem sometimes to transfer schools but I believe that's a consequence that they have to acknowledge. They can still go to a school but hopefully they've learnt a valuable lesson. Hopefully they won't get into that situation again. Frequently they change their behaviour in terms of the overtness of their behaviour.... Because we take students here too. And invariably it is successful when they do that. They've learnt a lesson.

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 didn’t 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.

If a kid gets kicked out for dope I personally wouldn't take him from another school. I have enough problems with my own.

If someone rings us up to take a kid who's been smoking drugs we think about it very seriously. It's not a decision taken lightly.... We have said no.

We used to have a really good arrangement in [the school's geographical area] where we'd take someone and there would be a bit of horse-trading...... But that spirit of co-operation has gone and schools are not taking as they did. And us included. Because a school to the west of us won't take ours so I won't take his.

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.

Some of these kids who end up being indefinitely suspended for drug abuse end up going nowhere because the Ministry is overloaded. The guy there has got a backlog that probably stretches down to the ground floor. We try with the other schools [in the area] and they can't get in. I inform the parents of that and then I write to the Ministry saying "The ball's in your court. They'll either go on correspondence or to another school - you direct them". But schools [in this geographical area], and I must admit I'm one of them, now have started ignoring Ministry directives.

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.

We wouldn't even bother asking schools with enrolment schemes. We have an inequitable situation where those schools, like us, who do not have an enrolment scheme, can be compelled by the Ministry to enrol students expelled from another school.... You can't compel many of those schools who have enrolment schemes - they say they're full. .... We tend to get a significant number applying who have been expelled from other schools and sometimes we take them. Each case is judged on its merits. Sometimes we refuse and sometimes the Ministry compels us to accept those we refuse.

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 school’s 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.

I think that we're probably one of the very few schools that take kids that have been suspended from other schools for drugs. Because you have the right to say no. But then where do those kids go for God's sake? Within reason, we do take them and we have not had problems with those students.

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 school’s more liberal school philosophy helped or that these students were not necessarily troublesome so should not have been suspended.

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