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Is a pound;50 penalty ticket the answer to pot?

Cannabis in school is not acceptable but as social attitudes soften heads have to change too, says Frank Gerstenberg.

ONCE again a prominent independent school has hit the headlines over the issue of drugs, although this time what attracted the press was the rector's decision to charge parents of pupils who admitted to a first offence of smoking cannabis pound;50 for random testing of their children. Since the case came to light there have been the usual pious outpourings of journalists and others expressing their indignation at the rector's temerity in adding a further pound;50 to the already extortionate fees.

There are, however, several issues here, none of them straightforward. First, should the use of cannabis, in or out of school, be treated as a capital offence? Most independent schools still request parents to withdraw children if possession or use of soft drugs in school is proven. But let no one think that heads are completely comfortable with their policy. They know full well that once their charges have progressed to college, they will almost certainly only receive a mild rebuke should their illegal activities come to light.

Heads also debate their policies on drugs regularly with governors, many of whom are parents of pupils. They even discuss such policies with their pupils, and it was their views which impressed me most. Of course, they said, a large number of pupils will take or have taken such drugs, but anybody who brings them into school is an idiot, since they know what the rules are.

As adults, we tend to see things more in shades of grey rather than black and white, but at the end of the day a head has to bear in mind the welfare of all the other pupils in the school. Were it merely a case of making a decision that affected the pupil concerned, it would be easy to give the first offender a second chance. But it isn't, and there is a grave risk in doing so. Most parents who send their children to an independent school do expect heads to take a strong line - at least until their own offspring are involved.

Then there is the much trickier issue of taking drugs off the school premises. Here I probably differed from many of my colleagues, inasmuch as I felt such cases were usually difficult to prove. What did seem to be effective was to speak to the pupil concerned, telling them that rumours were going around about their activities. If they were false rumours, they had nothing to worry about, but if they were true, it was important that I reminded them of the school's position - and that if I heard the rumours again, I might well have a quiet word with their parents. This may not have stopped them taking drugs, but it did let them know where they stood in relation to the school.

For some years, several heads of independent schools in Britain have adopted the Edinburgh Academy approach of agreeing to keep a first offender provided they agreed to random testing. It was not a matter of not trusting the students - they had already breached that trust - it was rather giving them a second chance, and at the same time making clear to other pupils that they could not expect to reoffend without dire consequences.

Such tests have been criticised as an invasion of privacy, but that is utter nonsense, as all schools are aware of their responsibilities in relation to child protection issues. Moreover, hair testing is now a viable alternative to urine testing.

The issue of who pays seems straightforward. While I stood out against random testing of first offenders (and thereby could be accused of not giving them a second chance), I fully accepted that it was a viable and humane alternative to automatic withdrawal. Surely the occasional pound;50 charge is not very steep when compared with the alternative, which can have considerable academic, social and emotional consequences. And why should other parents have to foot the bill for such miscreants?

Finally, there is the deeper issue as to whether schools should change their attitude to cannabis when it has in the eyes of the public become almost decriminalised. There is strong medical evidence that young people between the ages of 10 and 20 are at greatest risk because that is when their brains are most adversely affected. We owe it to our young people to point out the dangers and to protect them from them, by providing guidelines and sanctions against those who offend.

If a rector can discourage a harmful activity, and show a first offender a humane and forgiving face, what is pound;50 between parents? Two bottles of gin and two of whisky?

Frank Gerstenberg is a former principal of George Watson's College, Edinburgh.

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