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Spacer Spacer Cannabis and Schools
Principals' Responses:

1. Summary

The aim of this research is to describe schools’ management of and principals’ responses to students’ use of cannabis in school. It builds on our earlier research on board of trustees’ responses to the issue.

The research is based on in-depth interviews with the principals of the same ten Auckland secondary or intermediate schools from which we interviewed the board of trustees chairpersons for the previous study. These schools were selected to reflect a range of philosophical positions, socio-economic backgrounds and geographical locations within Auckland.

The policy in all of the ten schools was that cannabis was forbidden at school and that involvement with it could result in suspension. All principals acknowledged that each student’s case had to be treated individually. Nevertheless, nine of the ten gave unspecified suspensions in all cases where a student was involved in a cannabis incident. This meant they could not return to school unless and until the board allowed it. Four of these schools tended to then issue indefinite suspensions or expulsions in almost all cases.

Six of the ten schools made no distinction between the management of students caught with cannabis and those caught with alcohol at school. The main reason given was that intoxicants and education did not mix. For those schools that treated cannabis more strictly, the reasons given were that it was illegal and that it was worse for students’ ability to learn than alcohol.

All but one secondary school had drug education taught as part of their health education syllabus. Most principals felt that this was sufficient although others augmented this by bringing in outside agencies. One intermediate school had brought in outside agencies following their first cannabis incident. The other had had their first incident after a drug education programme. There was some concern that these might be linked but the principal was keen to continue to involve the agency.

Schools' response to suspected cannabis use varied according to their approach to cannabis incidents in general. Those schools that took a very hard line instituted searches of suspected individuals and, in two cases, undertook surprise searches of students with the assistance of the youth arm of the police. Those schools that took a more moderate approach followed up suspicion of use by watching the students, talking with them, reminding them of the school rules and, if appropriate, offering guidance.

If cannabis use occurred outside the school it was seen as strictly a health and education issue. The student was referred to those in the guidance network and their parent(s) might be notified. If use occurred within the school setting it became a disciplinary issue involving the principal because it was a breach of school rules and because of potential implications for other students and the school’s reputation.

The one school that did not suspend in the first instance dealt with incidents within the school, treating it as a health and life chances issue. They involved the wider peer group and their family/whanau in a drug education seminar and required those directly involved to attend a series of drug education workshops organised by the school’s health education teacher.

Principals’ reasons for giving unspecified suspensions in the first instance 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, it was a message to other students, the school’s reputation and the safety of other students were at stake, and parents expected the school to take a firm stand.

Four schools reinstated most students and only gave an indefinite suspension if the student had been supplying the drug or had a history of behavioural difficulties. One school reinstated about half the cases and the remaining four took a very firm line and suspended indefinitely in almost all cases.

Conditions of reinstatement following an unspecified suspension could be categorised as those taking a health and education approach (such as: attendance at drug education courses, doing a project on drugs, attending a guidance counsellor or social worker) and those taking a disciplinary approach (such as: doing community service, being separated from peers, detention, and being on a behaviour contract). Some conditions had both educative and disciplinary objectives and some schools instituted a range of conditions. Principals commented that very few reinstated students ‘reoffended’, although they conceded that students might be getting more adept at concealing their use at school.

Principals from those schools whose boards issued indefinite suspensions/ expulsions in most cases supported the hard line taken believing that it was the most appropriate way to curb the problem of cannabis in schools. Although two stated that they would like their boards to consider allowing those with minor offences to reapply to come back to the school at a later date, they still believed that reinstatement following the board hearing was too soft an option.

A few principals stated that it was not difficult to place an indefinitely suspended student in another school because principals in the area had good reciprocal arrangements. However, several commented that placing a student for a cannabis-related incident had become problematic and that they in turn were now more reluctant to accept such students from other schools. This change was perceived to result from the new competitive educational environment, in which a drug-free image increased the school’s competitive edge.

Like board members, principals were ambivalent about involving the media in cannabis-related incidents because of the risk of being perceived as a school with a drug problem, especially given that this could put future enrolments and possibly jobs at risk. However, several commented that where it was shown that the school had taken a firm stand on the issue it could work in their favour.

The amount of time and paper work involved in a cannabis incident placed a lot of work on already busy staff, particularly if the student was reinstated and needed monitoring and follow-up.

Principals perceived the trend of use within schools to be either stable or increasing and this was reflected in their own schools’ statistics for cannabis-related incidents. Several acknowledged that there was probably more use than came to their attention. Increased use was attributed to a perceived increase within society at large.

Like board members, many principals considered that cannabis was a complex community issue that schools were expected to cope but were poorly resourced to do so. Some talked of the need to liaise better with or work more closely with the community to deal with it.

Some principals drew attention to the increasing social work role schools were taking on with students. They attributed this to unemployment, the breakdown in social institutions and the under-resourcing of social agencies. Some felt that cannabis use by students was a symptom of the wider social problems students and their families faced.

Some principals argued that parents increasingly expected schools to take a firm stand against drugs. In the new competitive educational environment taking a firm stand on drugs was, therefore, considered a good marketing strategy.

2. Recommendations

The New Zealand School Trustees Association, the New Zealand Principals Federation and the Post Primary Teachers Association establish networks to facilitate exchange of information about strategies used for dealing with cannabis use by students.

Regional meetings be held between local principals, board chairpersons and Youth Law Project representatives to discuss and reach points of agreement about suspension processes.

Schools strengthen health promoting policies, conducive to preventing drug use and other problems, within the school environment (e.g. by giving priority to, and ensuring school policies are in harmony with, the objectives of the health education curriculum; by implementing Healthy Schools - Kura Waiora)

Additional funding be made available to community organisations which provide information and support to schools dealing with students’ cannabis use and related problems (e.g., the youth section of Community Alcohol and Drugs Services; Children and Young Persons Service) in order to strengthen their support role.

Where appropriate, principals negotiate with their neighbouring schools about employing a school social worker who would cover a cluster of schools and that funding be made available from the Ministry of Education to fund such positions.

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.


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