Pubdate: Sun, 22 Apr 2007
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Sian Griffiths
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United Kingdom)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)
Bookmark: (Ecstasy)
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)
Bookmark: (Heroin)


Two Mothers Tell Sian Griffiths Why Schools - and Parents - Must Do
More to Stop Children Taking Drugs

When Debra Bell's oldest son William started smoking cannabis he was
just 14, a high-flying pupil predicted to score a string of A* grades
at GCSE at a top London boys' school. His mother believes he smoked
his first spliff on an exchange visit to the school's sister campus in
Thailand and continued at sleepovers in classmates' houses.

William had his own explanation for what he saw simply as a means of
relaxing: "Cannabis . . . helped me unwind from stressful weeks at my
previous public school. There I was amongst a rebellious 50-strong
section of my year with whom I would drink and smoke," he wrote.

The teenager "thought nothing of it" but he was to pay a high price.
Now 19, William, says his mother, has stolen to fund his habit, been
thrown out of his parents' house, had a stint at the Priory and
dropped out of school. Today he is living in a rented house and is due
to take AS-levels, after being taught by a private tutor. Drugs, says
his mother, destroyed his life.

Last week a report from the UK Drugs Policy Commission warned that
Britain has the highest level of problem drug use in Europe. Among
teenagers, says Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington college, there is
a "drugs epidemic".

"There isn't a school in the country that doesn't have a problem with
drugs," says Seldon, who is critical of the government's decision to
downgrade cannabis to a class C drug.

One study by Queen's University Belfast found that among 4,000 14 and
15-year-olds questioned, a third had tried cannabis, the same
proportion had experimented with cocaine, twice as many ecstasy and
one in 10 heroin. Bell, a mother of three, says: "Users are getting
younger. One head told me every primary school has a pupil who has
taken drugs."

Bell, who last week addressed an anti-drugs conference at Wellington
college, is one of several parents speaking out to warn of the dangers
children face - and to ask schools to stop turning a blind eye.

"I believe it is generally in schools children start smoking," she
says. "Like most parents we presumed that when he left us to go to
school each day he was safe, which was not the case." She wants to see
random drug searches of children from the age of 11, backed up by the
use of sniffer dogs in schools and the enforcement of a zero-tolerance
policy - so that if a child is caught twice with drugs they are
expelled - something that didn't initially happen with her son.

"When I spoke to one of his teachers he did not want to know about the
drugs," she explains. "He said, 'If I know about his drugs I will have
to expel him, so let's not talk about drugs'. We had this unwritten
policy to get him through his GCSEs."

But this softly-softly approach may not be in the long-term interests
of the child - or his classmates. Schools that don't follow up their
threats with action, Bell points out, render their anti-drugs policies

The Abbey school in Faversham in Kent became, in 2005, the first state
school to introduce random drug testing - backed by counselling for
children who tested positive. Peter Walker, the then head, is now
working with the Department for Education and Skills to extend testing
to other schools in a pilot project. "What amazes me is how few
schools have taken up drug testing. Most parents want it to happen,"
he says.

Next month Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, a teacher living in Berkshire, will
publish a tale even sadder than that of Debra Bell's. Mum Can You Lend Me
Twenty Quid: What Drugs Did to My Family is the story of what happened after
her identical twins, Simon and Nick, started using cannabis when they were
13-year-olds attending a private school.

By the time A-levels arrived the twins had moved on to ecstasy,
cocaine, LSD, and later, heroin. They stole to fund their habit and in
trying to help them their mother ran up thousands of pounds of debt.
It was a downward spiral that ended three years ago when Nick, by 
thenin his twenties, killed himself - and his twin finally gave up drugs.

Burton-Phillips, speaking for the Nicholas Mills Foundation, set up in
memory of her son, advocates schools and parents working together to
spot the signs. But she has mixed feelings about head teachers
adopting a "one strike and you are out" policy.

"When my boys were suspended for smoking pot I was enormously grateful
that the school did not expel them," she says. "I know of a school
locally where they have set up an exclusion room for pupils doing
drugs. To expel them when parents are working is throwing the problem
on to the streets."

But Burton-Phillips would surely agree with Bell's sentiment: "I
thought this sort of thing happens to other people, not to families
who live in nice houses in leafy suburbs and worry about their children."

Bell has started a website, One mother
posted to say her cannabis-addicted son blamed her for sending him to
a "posh" school in Oxford.

But if schools could do more to combat drug use, so too could
families. Bell says she and her husband, a criminal barrister, took a
"tough love" approach. But when William was thrown out, he started
"sofa surfing". "Most of his friends were one-parent, wealthy
middle-class families," she says. "That didn't help us, they were
allowed to smoke in their bedrooms.

"A public health scandal is taking place. I knew if it was happening
to us, this stable middle-class family, it must be happening to
everyone but no one was talking about it."

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