Drug use in schools is undoubtedly increasing. But is a zero-tolerance approach from teachers the best way to put pupils on the straight and narrow?

Stoned at school

IT is lunchtime and a group of teenage school pupils are huddled in the corner of the playground. They may appear to be sharing a sneaky cigarette but, according to new statistics obtained by the Sunday Herald, they are just as likely to be smoking cannabis. The prevalence of substance misuse in wider society has seen drugs spread from the streets to the playground. The growing problem was dramatically highlighted earlier this year when an 11-year-old girl was found slumped in a primary school in the east end of Glasgow after smoking heroin.

The case � while recognised as extreme � provoked a national outcry, with politicians demanding a crackdown on drug abuse among young people. However new figures obtained by the Sunday Herald from Scotland�s 32 local authorities under freedom of information legislation show that drugs are being taken in schools on an almost daily basis. A total of 127 instances of pupils being under the influence of, in possession of, or excluded because of drugs were recorded in 20 local authority areas in 2005. In North Lanarkshire, Aberdeen City and East Dunbartonshire, which were only able to provide figures on exclusions for all types of substance abuse (including solvent abuse and alcohol), a further 121 cases were recorded.

Aberdeenshire and Edinburgh said they could not provide the requested statistics, while the remainder of the councils failed to respond within the 20-day limit set out under the FoI Act. Despite widespread fears about teen binge-drinking, the Sunday Herald found that incidences involving drugs in schools were four times more common than those involving alcohol. It also emerged that the drug at the centre of the majority of instances reported by local authorities was cannabis.

Nikki Fraser, project manager of Highlands drugs advice group Blast! says she has noticed �a lot� of drug use going on at �all schools�. However, she warns that teenagers are experimenting with many drugs other than cannabis. �I don�t wish for people to make an assumption it is just cannabis,� she says. �We�re talking about street-bought �benzos�, like valium and temazepam, and ecstacy, amphetamines and solvents as well. �Cannabis is the main one and it is happening in the majority of schools, although they won�t want to admit that.� Although Fraser�s claims that young people are taking more drugs than ever are based on anecdotal evidence, they are backed up by a recent survey carried out by the Edinburgh-based drugs project Crew 2000. It found that more youngsters had tried cannabis than nicotine in the past year.

John Arthur, manager of Crew 2000, claims that drugs are attractive to young people because they are often both affordable and accessible. He points out that the price of cannabis � at around �15 per ounce of resin � has remained the same for many years, while other drugs such as ecstasy have fallen in price and can be bought for as little as �1 to �3 per pill. �Drug use has increased among young people over the years, as has the availability of certain substances such as cannabis, which I suspect is the main drug showing up in schools,� Arthur says. �It�s pretty much ubiquitous in Scotland. �Young people are reflecting substance use in society and it is more prevalent now than it ever has been, with substance use normalised in many families and communities.�

Max Cruickshank, a youth work consultant, fears that the drug problem in schools is wider than that which goes on under the noses of teachers. �I think the number of pupils turning up in school with drugs to sell is very, very small,� he says. �But what I would say is that the number of children turning up at school under the influences of substances � particularly cannabis and alcohol � is much higher than the schools would recognise. �There is also that kind of Monday morning thing, where kids have been boozed up or drugged up at weekends and Monday or Tuesday is almost a wipeout. Some teachers would recognise that, others wouldn�t pick it up.�

Teachers themselves agree there is a �significant� problem of drugs in schools now, but argue that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how widespread it is. David Eaglesham, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA), says: �We have no evidence as we obviously don�t test how many pupils may be under the influence of drink or drugs in schools. �We know that there are pupils [who are under the influence] from time to time � on occasions it may be a significant number, on other occasions it may be almost non-existent. �But it is a significant problem and something that teachers are aware of and schools generally are aware of.� However Eaglesham also highlights that while, in some cases, a pupil�s behaviour can point to them having taken drugs, in others it can be impossible for teachers to ascertain. �There will be marginal cases where the kid has taken some sort of sedative drug and just gets drowsy and inactive and doesn�t do very much,� he says. �There are occasions when it is hard to tell whether they are under the influence of drugs or not, or whether it is just lack of sleep or playing computer games until four in the morning or something.�

Arguably, for some pupils who experiment with cannabis out of teenage curiosity, there will be few long-term effects. But for others who regularly use drugs, the consequences can go far beyond just one missed lesson, with their education and subsequently their future career suffering. Many schools will also report drug incidents to the police, which could have long-term implications, especially for pupils over 16 who may end up with a criminal record.

According to Detective Sergeant Gill Wood, national drugs co-ordinator at the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, the possibility of gaining a criminal record is one of the key issues that police officers highlight to young people when carrying out drug education work in schools. �One of the things that drug education officers say to try and make it meaningful to kids is that this could affect your travel if you want to go to the [United] States, which is very strict about taking anyone in with a drugs marker,� she says. �Most [work] places do ask people to declare a criminal record and then it would be a matter for the employer to decide if that was a difficulty for them, depending what the post was. �There are long-term implications for people when what they might consider to be a very minor or short-lived interest in their lives at a young age comes back to haunt them later on.�

Wood agrees that there has been a rise in drug use among young people which reflects a general escalation throughout society as a whole, but she insists that underage drinking is still a more widespread problem than drugs. �I�m not surprised that there may be more cases recorded in relation to drug misuse than there would be in relation to alcohol misuse,� she says. �My own view is that I think unfortunately there is a kind of cultural acceptance more of underage drinking than there is of drug misuse. �Also I think the legal status very much comes into it in that I think schools feel less inhibited about dealing with cases of underage drinking informally themselves, if you like, than they might about drugs which are illegal.�

A zero-tolerance approach to drugs is increasingly being introduced by schools. Evidence from statistics collected by the Scottish Executive on school exclusions suggests that more pupils are being banned from schools because of drugs. Latest figures show that the number of exclusions for abusing a substance other than alcohol � which can include sniffing glue or aerosol cans � rose by more than 15% in 2004-5, compared to the previous year. But not everyone believes a hardline approach is best for the pupils concerned. Petra Maxwell, spokes woman for charity DrugScope, argues that while exclusion may be appropriate in some cases, for instance where pupils have been caught selling class A drugs, for the majority of occasions it is best if the problem can be dealt with in schools. �It can be tempting sometimes for parents and teachers to be seen to be really tough and have a zero-tolerance policy on drugs,� she says. �But we know that truants and excluded pupils have much higher rates of drug use than those young people who are in schools. �So actually by excluding the pupils you make them more at risk of going on to develop problems with drugs because they are pushed outside the system. �If they are in touch with schools they are more likely to get picked up and signposted on for help as appropriate.�

Dave Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, also raises concerns about pupils being excluded from school due to drug abuse. �Obviously there is pressure from parents and local communities to take a very hard line on incidents of drug use, but there are bigger issues for those young people where drug use may be the symptom of a number of underlying problems they are experiencing,� he says. �Whereas with adults the problem tends to be pretty entrenched, young people�s drug use � and particularly chaotic drug use � can be a symptom of underlying problems and those are the things that need to be addressed for a person.� But while Liddell says that schools should be referring young people to appropriate services, he acknowledges it is not always easy. �Many of the agencies struggle in terms of providing services, particularly for young people,� he says. �There are a small number of specialist services for young people but it remains an issue that across the country there aren�t sufficient services to respond to that early drug use.�

Eaglesham, on the other hand, argues that a long-term cultural shift may be required, as happened with smoking. �There is a general pressure not to smoke now and kids tend to go along with that,� he says. �Drugs will maybe move in that direction too. �There is no one single magic solution. But there is no excuse for doing nothing.�

Judith Duffy
30 April


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