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When 'Just Say No' is not enough

Colleges at the forefront of efforts to tackle drugs on campus are adopting a new realism in their approach to the problem.

While tragedies such as the ecstasy-linked death of Essex college student Leah Betts prompted outrage at the spread of drugs use, some colleges have been quietly breaking new ground.

Issues which graphically resurfaced in the controversy surrounding the film Trainspotting have been preoccupying staff on campuses for far longer.

Some institutions are still not facing up to drugs problems on their doorsteps, but others are working with students and outside drugs prevention and health promotion agencies, according to Further Education Development Agency research.

FEDA plans to use examples of best practice, such as the project now under way at Suffolk College in Ipswich, to lead the way.

Ipswich, closeted in East Anglia, might seem an unlikely centre of drugs culture. But, lying close to the ports and docks of the Suffolk coast, it is en route from the Continent to lucrative British drugs markets.

Problems for Ipswich mean problems for its college. Staff at Suffolk College, like their counterparts countrywide, are increasingly encountering drugs misuse among students on and off campus.

Dave Stott, head of student services at the 35,000-student FE and HE college, says: "Nationally there is major concern at the moment about the growth of drugs use, particularly among young people. Colleges are desperately trying to work out what to do."

As FEDA's national survey on the issue revealed, colleges are having to cope both with drug dealing on their premises and with the effects of drugs on students in the classroom.

At Suffolk, where there have been occasional incidents on campus, staff are deeply anxious about their educational and legal responsibilities, says Mr Stott.

"We have tutors in the college who don't know how to respond. They have got students who they believe may be taking drugs, who are perhaps acting strangely, and they are saying, "I am a teacher. Was I trained to cope with this? They are looking to people such as myself for a way of dealing with that."

The college's response has been to turn to its students. Aware of scepticism among young people at the "Just Say No" approach to drugs information, the students services staff, together with the local community drugs team and health trust, surveyed a fifth of the college's 16 to 24-year-olds to identify better methods.

The results, which did not examine the extent of drug use, confirmed students were sceptical of much of the advice, and demanded clear, accurate information. "What they wanted was very little moralisation and very simple, credible factual information so that they could then make their own judgments about how to respond," says Mr Stott. "A lot of people wanted to hear from people who had actually taken drugs, rather than from educators."

Multimedia computer packages, video and theatre, would be the most useful and accessible methods of disseminating information on drugs, students felt. Most admitted their friends and peers were their major source of knowledge on the subject.

The findings shaped a package of initiatives now being developed and trialled at Suffolk. Drama students set to work on a theatre-in-education presentation on the health dangers of drug-taking, featuring typical student clubbers Sonia and Tania. The show will be taken out to neighbouring schools and youth clubs and even to Ipswich's streets.

CD-Rom packages, allowing students to take in information at their own pace, and videos are now in production. Support packages are also being designed for staff seeking help on providing drugs advice. An existing peer-education scheme, developed as part of the college's sexual health promotion efforts, has been extended to include drugs information.

Alongside these initiatives, to be evaluated at a conference in the autumn, the community drugs team has been invited into college one day a week to offer advice and counselling, as well as helping with staff development. Longer-term efforts will see drugs education more firmly embedded within the curriculum.

David Stott and his team are finding the project "exciting but scary too". "We still have to see whether we are investing in what people really want, and whether we have got it right. This is not just a game - it's for real."

Simon Anness, outreach worker with the community drugs team, found tutors in the college "incredibly supportive" and open to developments in the college's approach to drugs education. Staff, he believes, have learned to take a back seat and trust students to dictate how they learn. "I think the project has raised awareness and got people to think about how to work with the issue rather than ignore it and hope it goes away."

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