Pubdate: Sun, 27 Oct 2002
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Mark Pyper, the head of Gordonstoun


An Uncompromising Stand By Schools On Drugs Is Unjust And Doomed To 
Failure, Says Mark Pyper, The Head Of Gordonstoun

The government's downgrading of cannabis from a class B to a class C drug 
has been viewed with alarm by some head teachers, who worry that it may 
make it more difficult for them to keep schools drug-free. I do not believe 
that it will make any difference - as long as schools have the right 
policies in the first place. At Gordonstoun we abandoned the 'zero 
tolerance' policy - automatic expulsion for a single drugs offence - in 
1996, recognising that it was unrealistic, unreasonable and unhelpful.

Zero tolerance policies were tried in our schools from the 1970s to the 
1990s and were found wanting, not least in practical terms. The 
possibility, particularly in a boarding school, of a sufficiently large 
number of students being discovered with cannabis and facing expulsion that 
the school would perhaps have to close through a sudden fall in revenue 
might sound fanciful but is within the realms of reality.

Nowadays, in mediating between parents and pupils, head teachers have a 
useful role to play in the drugs debate. Parents need to be guided away 
from the syndrome of hanging and flogging towards a policy of 
reasonableness and empathy that their children will appreciate also.

In bridging the yawning divide between the generations teachers should 
start by leading parents into the world of potentially unwelcome reality. 
Parents need to appreciate the nature of the drugs threat: the names of 
drugs, both official and on the streets; their composition and possible 
effects, physiologically and psychologically; the symptoms displayed by 
users; the legal position; the assistance that is available to all parties.

In achieving this, parents are not only increasing their understanding, 
they are coming to terms with a phenomenon they will then not automatically 
reject in fear but over which they will have control.

Both pupils and parents need a policy that is absolutely clear and 
uncompromising but which has an awareness of the world and an empathy with 
the young at its core. That is why many schools changed their policies in 
the mid-1990s and why government reclassification, under which cannabis is 
still illegal, is not really a relevant issue for schools with such policies.

There is an immediate moral shortcoming to zero tolerance and enforced 
immediate departure for every single drugs offender. Parents who will 
subscribe only to a school that is 'clean' in drug terms should consider 
the case of the student who has been at a school for 4 years and is within 
months of taking her A-levels. She has been a model pupil - industrious, 
co-operative, responsible - but then, almost unwittingly, makes a minor 
error of judgment and consumes a microscopic amount of cannabis - perhaps 
just one puff of a cigarette passed to her.

Where is the morality in requiring such a girl to be excluded immediately 
and permanently without consideration for past record, future prospects or 
comparison with alcoholic misdemeanours? A successful drugs policy will 
emphasise prevention through education and cure rather than trading in 
peremptory exclusion. On the sanctions side, it will have to underline that 
some offences - use of category A (hard) drugs or trafficking - merit 
instant expulsion.

However, for a single use of a class B or C drug such as cannabis, there 
may be an opportunity to learn. The policy will insist on a period of 
suspension from school, followed by periodic drug testing when the pupil 
returns - for the remainder of her career. A positive test, pupil and 
parents have to agree together, will mean her leaving the school. The test 
may be taken at any time and, as cannabis can stay in the bloodstream for 
three to four weeks, the student has to think carefully about her 
behaviour, even in holiday periods.

Students as well as parents need education. They also need a policy that is 
clear but reasonable. (This, incidentally, can involve informing the police 
of all drug incidents, provided the young know this will happen). Above 
all, they need an environment that fosters informed discussion on a 
difficult topic.

This is where zero tolerance is so damaging and frequently serves to 
increase the amount of drug-taking in a school. In making a taboo of the 
subject, a school will drive drugs even more into the shadows where they 
flourish more profusely while the innocent, the ignorant and the 
potentially vulnerable have nowhere to go for help and advice.

Young people in the alternative, supportive environment I advocate will 
openly ask for a drugs test to establish innocence when an accusation or 
suggestion of drugs involvement has been made. Students can, and do, 
approach school staff, in the most genuine manner, to express concern about 
the possibility of a friend consuming something illicit, knowing that the 
matter will be properly dealt with.

It is possible to create a school environment where the pupils will not 
want drugs to be prevalent or even present. The good school will offer its 
pupils a positive ethos of challenge and controlled risk taking, an 
alternative scenario to the supposed verboten delights of the underworld.
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