Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Hard-Line Drug Policies Don't Work

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Hard-Line Drug Policies Don't Work

Article excerpt

Zero tolerance may sound appealing in its simplicity, but it can prove toxic to pupils who need help with substance abuse issues

It is understandable that many schools operate zero-tolerance drug policies, expelling students as soon as they are caught with an illegal substance on the premises. Such policies deter young people from taking drugs in school, create an anti-drug culture and satisfy parents. But they may be unnecessary and even harmful.

That is not to say that strong, clearly defined deterrents are not effective in reducing drug use in schools. A 2010 study by the Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA) in Bonn, Germany, found that the threat of permanent exclusion for cannabis use resulted in "a 43 per cent reduction in the mean propensity to consume it".

Similarly, a review of school practices relating to drugs concluded that such policies "influence the social environment of the school by playing a crucial role in setting behavioural norms".

But there is a problem. When it comes to punishing drug use in schools, the emphasis is not on the issues of drug abuse but on the fact that students have broken a rule. As the head of pastoral care at one London private school explains, to complement the school's zero-tolerance policy, school leaders opted to introduce a PSHE programme to "explain the dangers of drugs so that students can make their own minds up". The thinking is that pupils have all the information, so if they are still caught taking or possessing drugs it is their problem. At the point of punishment, there is no further attempt at education.

Such policies can actually prevent schools from being able to help their students. Most have provisions in place to assist pupils who have substance issues, but these require children to come forward about their problems before getting caught. Which would be fine if they ever did come forward. But, according to TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett, it is "very uncommon" for a student to do so.

This is not a huge surprise. A school which makes it clear that anything drug-related is banned is hardly going to foster the kind of atmosphere that supports students in admitting they have a problem and need help. It becomes even more unlikely as, according to Tony France, chief executive of drugs charity InfoBuzz, "there are often relatively small windows of opportunity for younger users where they are willing to acknowledge the emergence of a problem". …

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