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Cannabis and Schools
Principals' Responses


The principals from the ten Auckland schools chosen for this research all considered cannabis use in schools to be an issue which needed attention. They believed that in general it was increasing or at least not decreasing and this was certainly the case in their own schools. Students’ use of cannabis in the school was a concern because they considered it to be counter-productive to learning, an act of defiance against the school rules, and placing the health and learning of other students and the school’s reputation at risk. Although there was acknowledgement that alcohol use amongst youth was a problem outside the school, particularly in some areas, they considered alcohol use within the school to be less of a concern than cannabis. It was suggested that this was because the use and effects of cannabis were easier to hide than alcohol or other drugs.

Although principals differed in their views about cannabis use in the general community and about students’ recreational use outside the school setting, they were united and emphatic in their view that cannabis and education did not mix and that cannabis did not belong in the school setting. However, perspectives varied between principals on how best to deal with cannabis incidents at school, with some schools taking a much more punitive stand than others. The very strict line taken by some schools, such as drug testing and searching, had drawn criticism from the Youth Law Project, as had the manner in which some boards conducted their hearings. The approach taken by one principal and his colleagues of meeting with Youth Law Project representatives to discuss difficulties within their hearing processes and to come to a point of mutual understanding provides a good example of a collaborative effort to improve processes which have an important impact on students.

The strict line being taken by some schools throughout the country was attributed to increasing parental concern about drug use amongst youth and the increasing parental expectation that schools take a firm stand on drugs. In addition, it was seen as a marketing strategy appropriate to the prevailing competitive environment in which schools now operated. Schools were keen to avoid being labelled a school with a drug problem since this could put enrolments and possibly jobs at risk. These factors point to a high level of anxiety about the issue within both the public and school arenas. They also raise the question of to what extent schools’ responses to cannabis incidents are based on sound knowledge of the incidence and effects of the drug and how much they are based on perceived public expectation.

Some principals commented on the increasing difficulty of placing suspended students in other schools and, in some cases, their own reluctance to take in such students. It was felt that the demands that these students would make on already over-stretched staff and the risk to the school’s reputation concerning drugs, and thus its marketability, were factors contributing to this trend.

Principals indicated that they felt their school was doing the best it could to deal with the issue, given the many priorities that had to be juggled and limited resources. Many talked about the need for more liaison with the local community and for partnership initiatives between the school and community. Like board chairpersons, principals felt that schools were being asked to deal with what was a societal problem. The perceived and actual increase in cannabis use in schools was attributed to its perceived increased use in the community at large. A few expressed concern that school students were a ready and easily exploitable market for those selling cannabis. They acknowledged that, for some students, involvement with cannabis was a symptom of more complex social and behavioural problems. A strong theme throughout the interviews was the extent and complexity of social and personal problems faced by students and their families/ whanau, because of unemployment, the breakdown in social networks and under-funding of social agencies. The increasing societal expectation that schools would deal with these problems meant that some schools had had to employ or arrange for the services of a social worker.

As discussed in our previous report (Abel and Casswell 1997), the research literature indicates that strategies aimed at changing individual behaviour alone are not effective in preventing or addressing cannabis-related problems but need to be reinforced by a supportive and consistent policy environment. This includes consistent messages and norms about cannabis use within both the school and the community environments, since adolescents are quick to note inconsistencies and to dismiss such messages. Within the school setting this could be effected by giving greater priority to the health education curriculum and to ensuring that school policies are consistent with the messages from this curriculum. The Healthy Schools- Kura Waiora programme currently being implemented in some New Zealand schools is a positive move in this direction. The programme, which was developed by the Public Health Commission (Public Health Commission 1995), aims to involve the school and community in building on existing activities to develop and promote a holistic, comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to health promotion within the school. Implementation of the programme requires commitment by the school and the teacher responsible for the health syllabus. However, given some principals comments in this research that competing curriculum demands, heavy staff work loads and poor resourcing meant that the health education syllabus was at times given a low priority, some schools may require external assistance to institute a programme such as this.

As noted in our previous report, the research literature also points to the value of a community action approach in addressing drug-related problems and supporting health promoting strategies. In this approach key players within the community together identify problems and solutions specific to their local communities, of which the school is a part. Rather than individualising the problem of cannabis use in schools by isolating and simply punishing students, the aim is to see the issue as a responsibility of both school and community. The point made by principals in this research, that students’ involvement with cannabis relates to use within the wider community, to wider social problems and to diminishing social supports for themselves and their families, reinforces this recommendation.

In conclusion, schools are dealing with the issue of cannabis in schools by a range of means and there could be some value in their sharing information about prevention and management strategies. The issue is being dealt with within the constraints of a high level of public anxiety about drugs in school, a competitive educational environment, heavy staff workloads and increasing social problems experienced by students and their families. Given these factors and evidence from the research literature that drug-related issues and health promoting strategies are best implemented within a consistent policy environment and with strong community support, there would be considerable value in collaborative initiatives between schools and their local communities.


Cannabis and Schools: Board of Trustees’ Responses - Summary.

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 student’s 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 student’s 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.


Abel S, Casswell S 1997. Cannabis in Schools: Board of Trustees’ Responses. Auckland: Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit.

Black S, Casswell S 1993. Drugs in New Zealand - A Survey 1990. Auckland: Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit.

Ministry of Education 1996. Guidelines for Principals and Boards of Trustees of State Schools on Statutory and Procedural Requirements for the Suspension & Expulsion of Students. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education 1997. Ministry of Education 1997 Third Quarterly Report on Suspensions: July -September. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Public Health Commission and Ministry of Health 1995. Healthy Schools - Kura Waiora: Health Promotion Guidelines for Schools. Wellington: Public Health Commission and Ministry of Health.

Youth Law Project/ Tino Rangatiratanga Taitamariki 1997. The Effects of Indefinite Suspensions on Young People: Young People Talk about their Experiences. Auckland: Youth Law Project/ Tino Rangatiratanga Taitamariki.

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