Drugs in Queensland schools, though only affecting a very distinct minority of students, remain an extremely important issue that all schools must deal with. Drug matters also trigger the duties of care owed by schools to their students, staff and the wider community.
In Queensland there has recently been a move towards “zero-tolerance” policies, meaning that when students are involved with drugs at school they are expelled regardless of the severity of the school policy breach, prior misbehaviour or other factors relevant to their conduct. Disciplinary action for drug possession and use in Queensland public schools rose from 502 to 682 cases in 2010, with a total of 144 students being expelled – 66 more than in 2009.
Despite this increase in disciplinary action, existing drug policies and “zero-tolerance” policies have come under major criticism for being ineffective where it counts. The main criticisms of “zero-tolerance” policies are that they eliminate discretion, inflate harm regarding drugs and fail to provide an effective, balanced policy for dealing with students who have been involved with illegal drugs.
Instead, it is argued, the focus of drug policies should be on harm minimisation and exercising appropriate discretion in these serious matters. That is, students being expelled would not only face the instability and disruption of readjusting to a new school environment, they would face a far higher risk of not returning to school at all. If the expulsion / exclusion is a response to a student possessing small quantities of cannabis, the expulsion would, in many instances, be more detrimental to the student’s future prospects than the drug itself.
Attending school can be seen as a form of insurance against alienation for affected young people, and also sees young people away from higher risk populations that exist outside of schools. Adolescents need structure and support when it comes to rehabilitation, which is not what “zero-tolerance” policies are delivering.
It is imperative that schools retain students where appropriate, and give suitable advice to students early. Giving practical, immediately relevant advice, developing updated drug education programs and developing balanced, strong policy responses to drug possession and use in schools is the key to curbing future drug use, drug culture, associated mental health issues and other problems caused by drug use.
Even where a school has a policy designed to deal with an exact incident at school (for example, students smoking on school premises), these policies may be ineffective simply because they are not being enforced, implemented or followed properly.
If a student becomes involved with illegal drugs in schools, an appropriate response from school administration would be as follows:
- Once a student or students have been identified as possessing, using or being involved with illegal drugs or implements for drug use, or using a legal substance illegally or in an unsanctioned way (for example, sniffing glues, paints or petrols) within school grounds and hours, the school / professional staff should immediately and without delay escort the student to the Principal’s office, with the option of calling additional staff to assist. A first aid assessment may be undertaken. Incident details should be noted (who, what, when, where), and these dated notes should be presented to the Principal.
- From there, searches of the student’s / students’ lockers and property may be conducted in order to obtain evidence available at the time the potential breach came to the school’s attention. Even where evidence may be lacking, do not allow the conduct to continue (e.g. buying, using, selling, possessing) in order to obtain further evidence.
Whether searching students’ property is permitted will depend upon other school policies. For example, staff members may be able to conduct searches if there was a clause in the school’s drug policy along the lines of the following: “if a member of staff has a reasonable suspicion of illegal / inappropriate use of drugs on school premises or during school times, a staff member may conduct a search of the student’s locker and property including their bag/s for the purposes of confirming the suspicion and obtaining evidence or confiscating property”. This position should be made public to the students.
- If drugs or illegal implements are discovered, they must be treated with the utmost care and caution, delivered immediately to the Principal’s office and kept in a secure location. Do not destroy the drugs; call the police and facilitate police seizure of the illegal drugs or illegal implements (this may be unnecessary for quantities of legal substances such as glues). Great care must be taken with how drugs are handled, whose hands they are in and in which circumstances. Regardless of staff intentions, there is a possibility for a number of drug offences to be committed if the drugs or implements discovered are incorrectly handled or seized by the staff member. Schools should note that aggravated supply (of drugs), is an offence under the Drugs Misuse Act 1986, which involves doing or offering to do any act preparatory to or furtherance of supply to a minor, or supply within the premises of an educational institution. Further, another pertinent drug offence is permitting premises to be used for known drug use. This shows why it is important to respond to and stop students from engaging in any drug related behaviour as soon as the school becomes aware of it.
- Interview offending students, documenting everything for the school’s own records.
- Ensure students understand the procedure that will take place.
- Determine whether contacting parents is necessary, using sound professional judgment. Discuss with parents whether the incident needs to be treated, at least in part, as a health issue.
- Determine a forward strategy.
- Obtain independent, formal legal advice if necessary.
- Discipline student as necessary, bearing all the circumstances of the school policy / legal breach in mind, such as student’s prior indiscretions, along with harm minimisation considerations, and whether excluding the student from school is in their best interests in light of the safety of the whole school community.
- Read the school’s drug policy in conjunction with other school policies, for example, student harm minimisation policies and enrolment / exclusion policies.
- Review school policies.
- In-service staff over time.
- In-service students over time.
- Organise ongoing educational support, counselling, and plans for returning to school if the student has been suspended from school.
- Keep the incident confidential and avoid any damage to the school’s reputation flowing from the incident.
A school may include a clause in their enrolment contracts to effectively bind students to certain conduct within the school and ensure compliance with all school policies. That is, complying with the school’s drug policy would be a condition of enrolment, including the school’s ability to search student property, should a reasonable suspicion of drug possession or misuse arise.
Remember that it is not only school students who are capable of breaching school policy, as school staff members are capable of drug indiscretions as well. Since 16 January 2012, teachers in Queensland now face permanent deregistration from the teaching profession if they commit particularly “serious” drug offences. This law has been criticised for the lack of means to appeal deregistration decisions, but the rationale is aimed at child protection. What is a serious drug crime for the purposes of teacher deregistration provisions4 involves the following sections of the Drugs Misuse Act 1986:
- section 5 - Trafficking in dangerous drugs;
- section 6 - Supplying dangerous drugs only if the offence is one of aggravated supply (which means to a minor, intellectually impaired person or within an educational institution) as f the Act; and
- section 8 - Producing dangerous drugs only if an offender was or could have been liable for a penalty as mentioned in section 8, penalty, paragraph (a) or (b) of the Act.
Furthermore, the Principal themselves will usually have obligations in their employment contract binding them not to misuse or possess drugs and to take responsibility for upholding the culture of the school. It is particularly important for faith-based schools to take an appropriate stance against drugs in upholding the school’s reputation.
In conclusion, a strong, balanced, common sense approach is required to respond to drug misuse and possession in Queensland schools that keeps the best interests of the individual students and whole school community in mind.