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Cannabis and Schools
Principals' Responses

5.7. General Issues Raised by Principals

Principals raised a number of issues that they felt were important in the general debate about students’ use of cannabis in schools. These included concerns arising from hands-on management of cannabis incidents, as well as wider social factors and trends.

5.7.1 Involving the Media

Like board members, principals found that the decision about whether to involve the media in cannabis incidents was a contentious one. Some felt that the media attention gave the public the impression that the school had a ‘drug problem’ and in the new competitive environment this could cost enrolments and possibly jobs.

Education has become far more competitive. Far more market orientated. The image has been important...... And schools are very sensitive about drug issues in the paper. If parents get the idea that there is bad publicity about drugs, then that can result in say 20 fewer enrolments, therefore jobs. It’s a very sensitive area.

However, some felt that it was in the school’s interests to go public, provided they were shown to be taking a firm stand. One principal, who involved the police in a surprise drug raid in which no cannabis was found, actively sought media attention in order to show the public that the school was prepared to take a strong line and that in this case no drugs were found.

Parents didn't mind me admitting there was a drug issue at school. I actually believe that they are more concerned if a school does nothing about it - that was my interpretation. If a principal says "Oh no, it happens at [a neighbouring school] and not at [this school]" - now any thinking person would say that's just living in cuckoo land. Whereas I said "Yeah, there could be a problem but we'll prove that it's not and we'll take harsh action".

Nevertheless a principal from an intermediate school who supported media coverage of a particular incident, despite staff ambivalence, said he would be cautious about involving them if there was a second incident.

It was controversial with the staff. Some people thought that we shouldn't have been in the media about it because it would harm the school. But my belief, and I think it's been justified, is that, because we were open and up-front and we showed that we were making a solid and strong stand on it from the point of view of punishment for the children and through backup programs to support children in the dangers of it, we came out of it very well. I certainly had very strong support from the board of trustees and the local community, the businessmen. And people I spoke to were full of praise. I also had support from various principals who rang in and said "Well done - I'm glad you did that".... [But] if we had another incident again it would be detrimental to make it widely public because it would be "Here it is, it's happened again". That would have a negative impact.

5.7.2. Heavy Work Load:

Some principals spoke of the large amount of paper work generated by each cannabis incident and the competing priorities for staff time. They talked of the breadth of work that was required in order to establish with certainty who was involved and to deal constructively with those students who were. They also mentioned how poorly resourced schools often were for such work, particularly where they kept the student and provided them with support and follow up rather than sending them to another school, or where the student had more general social and personal problems.

We've very aware of how difficult it is to accuse people unless you've got absolute proof and it takes an incredible number of man hours to get it out - to investigate and find out .

If you take somebody who's found smoking marijuana - my God, the workload is just horrendous. It takes hours and it falls really heavily on the management team. And the board come in. There are all sorts of things that have to be done. You have to get academic profiles of the students. The counsellors are likely to be involved. It puts a very heavy burden on us.

I would like to think that boards of trustees and principals could look at the wider issues that affect children and their growing up and their development - to acknowledge that you don't handle some of those problems by waving a big stick..... I also believe that the Government should put a lot more resources, human resources, into schools to help with that.

5.7.3. Perceived Trends in Cannabis Use in Schools:

Principals perceived the trend of cannabis use in schools in general to be either stable or increasing. Statistics for cannabis-related incidents in their own schools for the previous three years reflected this perception. Three of the schools had had their first official incident in 1997, two showed an increase in incidents, and three showed numbers similar to the previous years. Figures for previous years were not obtained from the remaining two schools but these principals indicated that they thought use had not decreased. There was no apparent correlation between the approach taken to cannabis-related incidents and the trend of incidents.

Several principals commented that they were aware that there was probably considerably more use in their school than was brought to their attention and that students appeared to be developing strategies to avoid being caught. For example, two principals mentioned that students were now tending to gather in groups in the middle of a large open space, such as a playing field, so that they would have ample warning if a teacher approached them and could run off in different directions. Some said that it would be naive to think that all students who used cannabis at school were drawn to their attention and that what they knew about was possibly only the tip of an iceberg.

Well, there's certainly no evidence that it's decreasing. There's probably evidence that its use is increasing. One of the issues is: do you have a tip of the iceberg situation? I've mentioned 20 students being caught up in cannabis offending this year. We don't really have any accurate idea of what proportion of the number of students or the number of incidents of drug use at school that represents. It could represent a very small percentage or there may be a large number of incidents of drug use that are not being identified and apprehended. We don't know for sure.

The perceived increase was felt by some to come from increased use in the general community. A few commented on high levels of use and dealing within the vicinity of their school and within the parent population. They felt that this did not bode well for keeping it out of their schools. A principal who believed there were high levels of both unemployment and cannabis use in the local community stated:

The frequency of it has definitely increased and that I believe is directly caused by its frequency out there in society. I mean I was just amazed hearing one of the girls we questioned recently ....talking about someone in the family giving her the money to go to the tinny house to buy the stuff. It's clear that it's rife in the community.... The whole level of its availability is just so much higher and this means there's difficulty in keeping it out of schools given two things: the whole nature of adolescents need to take risks and establish their identity and status, plus the fact that with the unemployment so high we're talking about market forces here and people actually looking for markets. So inevitably you're going to have sellers trying to access the adolescent market through the school.

A few principals felt that, although it was an ongoing problem, the issue was a manageable one given the right resources and support and that there was no need to take too aggressive an approach.

I'm not panicky about the situation, I'm not feeling that the thing's getting out of control. ...I've got some faith in the common sense of the student body.... Kids being kids, they like taking risks and get kicks from taking risks and doing risky things, especially in the context of a peer group. So I think it will be an ongoing problem. But it's not one that I think is out of control...[And ]I think there's a fairly high level of public concern. There's no complacency out there about it in most quarters and so I think it's fairly healthy. I don't have evidence that we've got a lot of irresponsible parents selling their kids short by reckless use at home or that sort of thing.

I think it's perennial - the figures will never go away. You just have to work on building people's discretion and value systems, sense of health and so on, as constructively as you can. I don't favour a police state approach. (CW:11)

5.7.4. Cannabis Use Seen as a Community Problem:

Several principals talked of cannabis incidents in school being a consequence of use within the wider community about which there were mixed messages. Like board members, principals claimed that schools were being asked to deal with problems which were generated within the community. Although one principal argued that schools were ideally placed to deal with societal problems, such as drugs use, and indeed it was their responsibility to do so, others thought it was unfair to expect schools to deal with such a major social issue without adequate resources and support. Some principals catalogued the numerous demands placed on schools and talked of the reduction in both community and internal resources available to deal with them.

There's a lot of baggage of society that's being dumped on the schools and certainly we're doing the role of social work . There are just a whole lot of jobs that we didn't have to do before. You know the central authority would do all these things. There was some sort of resourcing to do it. There was a safety net of residential centres say of social workers, agencies and it was all there - there's nothing there now.

But it is a societal problem. It isn't a school problem as such. It's not generated by the school. And I think there's a certain amount of hypocrisy on the part of people who quite freely use cannabis but preach law and order and so on. ...I just think that the schools can find themselves so easily getting bad publicity for something that's coming from the community that they're trying to stem without resources.

Part of the problem is all the other responsibilities that schools have got as well.... Every time a major issue arises in the community or in the nation it's becoming common for the responsibility to fall back on the schools to actually do something about it...... While I believe that we have a role, it's only ever going to work if we work in partnership with the community.

Several principals talked about the need to work with the community. A few reported close links with key community stakeholders, such as business people, the Police, the Children and Young Persons Service, and the Department of Social Welfare. One commented that he met regularly with such community members in what was an information sharing situation aimed at crime prevention. However, in many cases principals affirmed the views of board chairpersons, that there was a need for a closer liaison between schools and their communities to deal with cannabis use within schools and cannabis-related problems within the wider community.

It's actually a law and market issue. The solution to this problem actually lies beyond the schools. But what schools need is some way to support our struggle to keep it out of our schools.

It's a question of society and community responsibility. You've got all these sorts of things like: What is the role of society? What is the role of the community? And the school is a sort of society and community organisation. Also what is the role of the family and the role of the individual? In terms of cannabis, all sorts of really complex issues are illuminated.... You can see that the problem defies a simple solution. ….Wherever you see complex human problems people always cast around desperately for the simple solution that will solve it and there is no simple solution.

I believe that a school needs to work with other groups in the community to try and solve the problem of substance abuse amongst teenagers - and by substance abuse I mean marijuana and alcohol in particular....... We're well aware that the community's got a problem and because we are part of the community we should be working with the community to try and solve it.

However, one principal warned of the need to tread carefully in areas such as his, in which it was generally perceived that there were high levels of cannabis use and supply amongst the local population. He reported an incident in which, after the school went public about a cannabis incident, a board member was threatened, presumably by relatives of one of the students. This experience had made him and the board think very carefully about the way in which they dealt further with the issue.

5.7.5. Schools’ Increasing Social Work Role:

Many principals drew attention to the increasing social work role their schools were taking on. Reasons given for this included; the breakdown in social institutions and networks, the under-resourcing of social agencies and, in some cases, the greater concentrations of ‘at risk’ students they had as a result of the abolition of zoning which had exacerbated socio-economic differences between schools. Several argued that these factors contributed to an increase in cannabis use in schools while also making difficult the management of these incidents. Some commented that cannabis use by students was merely a symptom of much wider and more complex problems. In some schools social workers were now necessary to deal with the issues faced by students and the parent population. Whereas previously teachers or the principal may have been able to liaise with families, this was no longer effective and the input of a social worker was required.

The level of work that is having to be covered through guidance networks, because of social change and disintegration of community and support, is just incredible….At [this school] we have a social worker and we've done it because we believe that this is what has to be done.. We have a powerful and highly effective guidance network.... [But] before we had a school based social worker we basically had children that were beyond what the school could do. Because, when there is no one in the family to form an effective partnership with the school, teachers cannot do it. You can stretch teaching to the ultimate with your guidance counsellor and your guidance network but once you're getting into a family that cannot produce one responsible adult you've got beyond teachers. You know you've got into the realms of social work. There are plenty of families that cannot produce one responsible adult. This is the nature of our social disintegration.

There will be some families that are intact and we will work together and then there will be family situations where there is no real adult that anybody can work with...... There are some families that are in such dire straits that the young person is sort of in nowhere land... You do your best because the alcohol problem or the cannabis problem is only a symptom of something much greater than that.

Some schools had managed to fund their own social workers or youth workers, whom they employed in addition to the guidance counsellor and school nurse. A principal in a school without a social worker was trying to establish a scheme whereby one would serve a cluster of schools, comprising a college plus contributing intermediate and primary schools. This would mean that the social worker could work with whole families with children of different ages. However, such a position required funds which the school did not have readily available and the principal felt that the need was great enough to warrant funding from the Ministry of Education.

As it stands at the moment we would have to take it out of our operational grant and/or get support or sponsorship from the private sector, which is also something that we're looking into. But I believe it's something that the Ministry should pay for in schools and it should be in addition to the staffing component.

The use of a school-based social worker was considered especially important in those areas where families were suspicious of outside agencies coming into their home.

There are tremendous gaps in what we can actually do when we know that our pupils are living in a family environment that is actually detrimental to their health and their future......[But] by using a social worker we can put somebody into the family for other reasons, who maybe would then be able to help the family through that or make suggestions. I know that our community have really valued and appreciated our approach. That rather than using agencies like Truancy and the Police to deal with some of the issues, we visit ourselves and talk them through. .....We're not threatening. We're coming from the point of view that we want the best for their children and that what we do in the school as far as their learning's concerned is affected by what happens to them in society and in their life outside school and that the parents and us have to work together on those sort of things to ensure that their learning isn't affected. Okay, it sounds a wonderful idea and with some families they don't really care and, yeah, we take the stronger action by bringing other agencies in.

However, one principal from a school which had had a number of cannabis incidents, and was within a community with generally perceived high levels of use, did not consider the presence of a social worker in the school enough to deal with cannabis-related incidents.

Without this social worker we simply could not meet the needs. And, even with a social worker, we still have to suspend for marijuana.

5.7.6. The Perceived Impact of Social and Market Forces on Schools’ Policies:

Some principals argued that the breakdown in social institutions and networks and the competitive nature of education contributed to many more schools taking a harder line on cannabis use than had been the case in the past. The argument was that the breakdown of traditional social institutions (such as the church and the family) meant that the community increasingly looked to schools to teach and represent sound social values which included their taking a firm stand on drugs. Principals from schools which took a hard line approach said that one of the reasons they did so was because it was ‘what parents wanted’ in the climate of growing general conservatism and growing parental concern about drug problems. Such an approach was therefore also a good marketing strategy in the new competitive environment where a drop in roll could result in job losses.

There's a perceived link between dope and youth suicide among parents and teachers. There may not be any but it's an anecdotal link. There's a perceived linkage between loss of values or loss of purpose and dope or alcohol. I think religion used to fill some of those gaps but it doesn't now..... Apart from that I think the electorate is hardening. There's a hardening out there to saying "lets stand for something". ..... And they want the institutions of society like the schools to stand for something too. …I think there's a bit of schools trying to keep the high moral ground on conservative values. To be more conservative is higher value than to be liberal. I mean if you want to get your roll numbers up take a high moral ground on dope and standards.

It was decided that we would make a very conspicuous student welfare decision - and I have to admit a community marketing decision - to present a line well to the right of Margaret Thatcher on drug abuse and to make it clear to students what the consequences would be.

People want to know immediately if there are any drug problems in this school and so on.... If a school is honest and open it's very bad for marketing. And I think some schools probably try to sweep it under the carpet.

Two principals also noted that, although parents appeared to want the school to take a tough line on drugs, if their own child was caught they were not so sure.

In general I would say that our community supports that [ a hard line] very strongly. Except maybe when it affects them personally. That's when it changes. It's amazing how parents will say "yes it's a great policy", until their kid's involved.

When I write these letters to the parents in more cases than not I get furious letters back like "How dare you accuse my son of drug taking, I know he's not". Very symptomatic I think of North Shore parents as a whole who tend to be more defensive of their children than maybe other areas. They are very supportive of extremely strong discipline for other people's kids.

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