Why hard-line drug policies don't work

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 TESS 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".

If the students are not going to come forward, schools with zero-tolerance policies have no other opportunity to help them. Instead, they simply exclude these pupils, throwing away not only the best but in many cases the only opportunity for that child to get help with a serious issue.

But, the argument goes, surely the prevention of drug use through tough sanctions justifies a few young people slipping through the net. Perhaps, although this may not be the whole picture. While the IZA study offered evidence that zero tolerance can work in part, it measured cannabis use rates based on self-reported figures. So it is possible that the threat of expulsion resulted only in fewer people disclosing their habit.

So what should schools do? Drugs charities Mentor and InfoBuzz believe there are four key aspects of a successful policy for dealing with drug-related incidents:

Schools should not do anything that could be seen to condone alcohol or drug use.

Permanent exclusion should not, except in extreme circumstances, be an option after a first offence.

Whatever action is taken, it needs to lead to better outcomes for the students involved.

The response needs to be clear and fair. The overriding rule is that any drug policy should act as an effective deterrent and a way of conveying why drug use is bad, and worthy of punishment.

Many schools opt for this supportive approach. University College School in North London has run its drugs policy along these lines since the 1990s. The school's official documents state that temporary exclusion is preferable to permanent expulsion in such cases, and that pupils will be referred for counselling and medical screening as a condition of returning after an incident. This method, according to David Colwell, head of pastoral care at the school, has proven remarkably effective. "I do not recall any instances of students who were suspended for the first offence and then expelled for a second or subsequent offence," he says.

Even if pupils do reoffend, they have received a powerful message of support from an institution that can influence their behaviour and spark change. If we truly want to help students, we must realise that zero tolerance has zero impact.

Theo Serlin is a sixth-form student at City of London School

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