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Principals' Responses:

3. Introduction

This research examines Auckland school principals' responses to the issue of cannabis in schools. It builds on our earlier study on boards of trustees’ responses (Abel and Casswell 1997), providing another perspective on this topical issue. Throughout 1997 the issue of cannabis in schools received considerable media attention, much of which focused on the relatively hard line approaches some schools have taken to deal with it. These have included the indefinite suspension/expulsion of pupils (e.g., New Zealand Herald 22/2/97; Central Leader 9/5/97;), the proposed introduction of urine testing for those students who have been caught with cannabis and who are wanting to return to the school (e.g., Dominion 30/5/97; FADE News August 1997, New Zealand Herald 12/4/97, 16/10/97, 24/10/97), and the proposed (and actual) use of dogs to detect cannabis in schools (e.g., New Zealand Herald 2/5/97; East and Bays Courier 11/6/97).
At various stages throughout 1997 the media have also drawn attention to high national school suspension figures for drug-related incidents (e.g., New Zealand Herald 2/4/97; 8/8/97; Western Leader 19/6/97). Ministry of Education national suspension figures for the first three quarters (January to September) of 1997 indicated that 17% (1638) of total suspensions were for drugs other than alcohol and tobacco (Ministry of Education 1997). Suspensions for cannabis-related incidents were not specifically isolated but it can reasonably be assumed that they comprise the vast majority of those within this category. By comparison suspension figures for incidents involving alcohol and tobacco were considerably lower at 574 (6%) and 343 (4%) respectively.
The total number of suspensions for drugs other than alcohol and tobacco increased from 514 in the first quarter of 1997 to 734 in the second, then dropped to 390 in the third. However, this reduction may in part be explained by seasonal factors. In addition, this third quarter figure was 65% higher than that for the same period in 1996, which was 236 (Ministry of Education - personal communication). Because figures on particular ‘offence categories’ have only been available since July 1996, it was not possible to compare the 1997 first or second quarter figures with those for 1996. However, it is probable that figures for these two 1997 quarters were considerably higher than those for 1996. Whether such an increase is because there is more cannabis in schools or because schools are becoming more vigilant about and stricter with cannabis is a moot point. However, there appears to be a strong public perception that the incidence of cannabis in schools is increasing and that addressing it is a matter of some urgency.
Ministry of Education figures differentiated between specified suspensions of up to 3 days, where the student automatically returns to school afterwards, and unspecified suspensions, where whether the student returns to school or not is determined by the board of trustees. In 70% of suspensions for drugs other than alcohol and tobacco the student received an unspecified suspension, thus involving the board of trustees. Out of the 13 ‘offence’ categories listed in the Ministry’s report, this was the only one for which there were more unspecified than specified suspensions. By comparison, the vast majority of suspensions for alcohol or tobacco incidents, 81% and 87% respectively, were specified (up to 3 day) Ministry of Education 1997).
The Ministry of Education has stipulated that schools must treat each alcohol or other drug incident on its own merits and cannot issue automatic responses (Ministry of Education 1996:24). Schools' policies, therefore, cannot state that a cannabis incident ‘will’ result in suspension. At most they can state that suspension is a ‘likely’ or ‘probable’ outcome. The principal is the only person who is entitled to suspend a student in the first instance and can choose between a specified suspension or an unspecified suspension.
In the case of a specified suspension the principal is required to write a report on the incident which is then sent to the student's parent(s) and the board. However, the latter do not become involved in these cases and the student returns to school after the specified period.
If an unspecified suspension is given, the student's case goes to a board of trustees' hearing within 7 days of the suspension if the student is under 16 years old (the legal school leaving age) or by the next meeting if the student is over this age. The principal is required to write a report on the incident which then goes to the board, the parent(s) and the Ministry of Education. The student, their parent(s) and possibly an advocate attend the board hearing to present the student's case and, following this, a decision is made by the board (excluding the principal) as to whether the student will be reinstated, with or without conditions, or have their suspension extended indefinitely (or be expelled if over 16 years). Indefinite suspensions are commonly given until the student's 16th birthday which in effect means that the student cannot return to the school. In this case the principal is required to find them another school or, if unsuccessful, refer the case on to the Ministry of Education.
According to the Education Act 1989 a student from a state school can only be suspended for an unspecified period if their behaviour is deemed ‘gross misconduct’ or ‘continual disobedience’ or is considered harmful or dangerous to themselves or other students. Following a 1990 legal case in Palmerston North in which two students' unspecified suspensions for alcohol use were revoked, the term ‘gross misconduct’ became defined as behaviour that was ‘striking and reprehensible’ (Ministry of Education 1996:23).
The use, possession, cultivation and supply of cannabis is illegal in New Zealand, however its use in the general population is not uncommon. A 1990 drugs survey found that marijuana was the most commonly used illicit drug with 43% of the 15 to 45 year olds surveyed having tried it and 12% being current users. Almost half of the 43% who had ever used marijuana had first used it before their seventeenth birthday (Black and Casswell 1993).
There has been little, if any, research on cannabis in schools and it was for this reason that we undertook our initial study on boards of trustees' responses to the issue. The intention was to provide a research-based and more comprehensive view of the ways in which schools were dealing with the issue, than was apparent through media reports. That study was based on in-depth interviews with the chairperson of the board of trustees in ten Auckland secondary or intermediate schools, which were selected to represent a range of philosophical approaches to education, decile categories (measured by the socio-economic status of the student population) and geographical areas within Auckland. The aims of the study were to outline these schools' policies for management of students caught with cannabis and to highlight the issues arising for boards of trustees in their implementation of these policies. Several interesting issues arose from these interviews (see Appendix for a summary of the report).
In April 1997 the New Zealand Drug Foundation responded to the high media profile of cannabis and school suspensions by introducing a discussion forum on this topic at its Internet web site http://www.nzdf.org.nz. Our board of trustees report, which was released in August 1997, was put up in full on the Alcohol and Public Health Research Unit's web site (http://www.aphru.ac.nz), with a link through to the Drug Foundation's discussion forum.
In September 1997 the Youth Law Project released a qualitative research report on the impact of indefinite suspensions on students (Youth Law Project 1997). The researchers interviewed 18 students who between them had been indefinitely suspended 23 times. Of these 18 students, six had been suspended for a cannabis-related incident and one for an unspecified drug-related incident. Five of these seven students had had their suspensions extended and did not return to the school.
The report highlighted that for the majority of the 18 students the suspension process in general and the board of trustees hearings in particular were negative, alienating experiences. It recommended that principals give greater consideration to a three day specified suspension and, if this was not adequate, that they initiate a ‘family group conference’ which did not involve the board, was more student-friendly and in which decisions were made by consensus. An indefinite suspension resulting in a board of trustees hearing was recommended as a last resort. Also recommended was the establishment of an Education Review Tribunal to which students and their parent(s)/caregiver(s) could appeal in cases where they were unhappy with the procedures taken.
On 11 November 1997 the Minister of Education, Wyatt Creech, introduced the Education Legislation Amendment Bill into Parliament. One of the facets of the Bill is to provide legislative parameters for the suspension process which is currently guided by Ministry of Education Guidelines. The proposed aim is to make the suspension process fairer and more flexible. The Bill proposes to recognise students’ rights to natural justice through the right to speak and be represented. It aims to replace three day specified suspensions with a ‘stand down’ period of up to five days in a term or ten days in a year, as a means of reducing the likelihood of an unspecified suspension. It also aims to encourage reinstatement with conditions and, through the concept of ‘exclusion’, promote efficient management of students who are indefinitely suspended and need to be placed in another school (New Zealand Government press release 11/11/97).
The research reported here adds to the debate about the issue of cannabis in schools by describing the perspectives of principals from the same ten Auckland schools that were chosen for our board of trustees study. The focus is similar to that involving the board of trustees but includes information about schools’ procedures for suspected or actual cannabis-related incidents prior to the boards’ involvement. Once again the intention is to show the range of approaches taken by different schools and to highlight the issues arising from these, in this case from the perspective of the principal. The research aims were:
To describe the management of students caught with cannabis in ten Auckland secondary or intermediate schools
To document the principals' responses to this issue in their schools.
4. Research Methods
In our previous study on boards of trustees' responses to cannabis in schools (Abel and Casswell 1997), we selected ten Auckland secondary or intermediate schools that had had experience of dealing with students caught with cannabis at school. The schools were chosen to reflect a cross section of philosophical positions, demographic profiles and geographical regions with the aim being to show a range of approaches schools might take in their management of such students and the different issues facing specific schools as a result of their management approach. Two the ten schools were intermediate schools and the remaining eight were secondary. Two were single sex schools and the remainder co-educational. One was a Catholic school that had been integrated into the state system. In terms of geographical location two schools were in South Auckland, one was in the eastern suburbs, three were in central Auckland, two in West Auckland and two on the North Shore.
For this study the principals of these same schools were approached to see if they too would be interested in being interviewed. For the most part the principals already knew about the project as a result of the involvement of the chairperson of their board of trustees. All expressed interest in the topic and agreed to be interviewed. It was stressed that the purpose of these interviews was not to seek validation for or find contradiction with comments by their board chairperson, but rather to complement and expand on those responses. In one school the two co-principals were interviewed together and in another the principal and deputy principal were interviewed together.
As was the case in the previous study, these were face-to-face interviews which were semi-structured and lasted approximately 45 minutes. Questions related to such areas as:
details of the school's policy for students caught with cannabis;
whether this differed from that for alcohol and, if so, why;
what drug education programmes the school had;
how the school managed suspicion of cannabis use as opposed to explicit incidents;
what the procedures were for those caught with cannabis;
how many students had been caught in the previous two years and what had happened to them;
what comments the principals had about their school's approach to cannabis incidents and
any general comments or suggestions they had.
At the time of these interviews our report on the board of trustees' responses had just been released so each principal was given a copy, but none had read it prior to being interviewed. However, some of the key points from it were brought into the discussion by the researcher as appropriate. All interviews were audio-taped with the consent of the participants and were transcribed for analysis. As for the previous study, both the interviewing and analysis were carried out by Sally Abel, an experienced qualitative researcher.


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