Where users are not abused

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Neil Merrick reports on how colleges are

tackling student drug use and hears what Keith Hellawell, the drugs tsar, has to say about the sector's

as-yet-hesitant approach to the problem COLLEGES don't have to talk to their students about drugs. Some do, but try to keep it all as low-key as possible in case word gets around that they have a "drugs problem".

Students at Weston College in Somerset find out about drugs within days of enrolling for their courses - from the people who know most about them.

Some may have come across them already, but student welfare officer Gill Fowkes believes 16-year-olds are generally not as drugs aware as they want others to believe.

"Some think they know more than they do," she says. "A lot don't really know all of the health risks associated with drugs."

Students soon discover that the college will not tolerate drugs on the campus and that anyone caught dealing will be suspended, pending a disciplinary hearing.

Students caught in possession of drugs may also be suspended - but not necessarily. Ms Fowkes says it is important to judge each case on its merits rather than having a blanket policy of excluding drug-users.

"We are trying to be realistic. We know that drugs are around, but we don't want them on the college premises. Nor do we want students to come in under the influence of alcohol or drugs."

If the college simply excluded drug-takers, students could end up causing themselves greater harm. "It's about responding to individual situations and treating people as individuals," she adds.

Weston's policy of realism combined with "harm minimisation" seems to be working. No student has been excluded for dealing or possessing drugs during the past five years.

If a student admits they use drugs outside college, Ms Fowkes may refer them to Advice and Counselling on Alcohol and Drugs, a local agency which takes part in freshers' fayre, or to one of the college's two counsellors.

Ms Fowkes normally has to help students with drug problems four or five times a year. "Some students use drugs recreationally but don't choose to bring them into the college," she says.

The college's poicy makes sense to students who have more experience of drug issues than anyone else. Steve is one of 35 students who enrolled at Weston 18 months ago as part of a project for people who had moved to the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare to try to overcome drug and alcohol problems.

"The college's policy is about helping people rather than persecuting them," says Steve, who completed an IT programme last year and is now taking a counselling course. "If that was adopted more widely, it would prevent people going underground and becoming secret users."

The town has more than 30 residential centres for people who are referred from elsewhere in the UK for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes. The college received a pound;40,000 grant from the European Social Fund to cover exam fees and other items.

Just four students dropped out of the project while some have returned again this year. "It's an opportunity to meet other students and realise that they've got another chance," says Gill Fowkes.

It is up to the students, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, whether they tell teachers and fellow learners that they are on rehabilitation programmes.

Bonnie, who is on a beauty therapy course, says her tutors have helped to give her life the structure she needs to resist drugs. "Drug-taking goes on with my generation. Education is always the best way of dealing with it."

Weston College is the largest local provider of post-16 education with about 2,000 full-time students and 8,000 part-timers. Following induction, drugs education is mostly left up to tutors.

Abigail Rutherford, who is taking a diploma in nursery nursing, noticed a huge difference between the approach taken at her secondary school and that at the college. "In school, it's more 'don't do'. Here it's more 'if you do, then do it safely and don't do it in college'."

Karen Carr, who is taking an advanced general national vocational qualification in health and social care, says it is illogical automatically to exclude users. "If someone has a drugs problem and they are kicked out of college, they will be left with nothing," she says. "It's better if they receive help."

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