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Yesterday's scandal;Opinion

It's taken 10 years,but patient PR by heads has put a stop to all those sensational stories about drugs and schools, says Hugh Dougherty

DRUGS ain't what they used to be - at least as far as the media are concerned. When 10 years ago I was working on the education press desk for Strathclyde Region, a drugs-related exclusion was big news. The national papers were knocking at your door and waves of shock reverberated through the school affected.

I well remember the time that a six-year-old was caught carrying a drugs supply for an uncle in one of the primary schools in Possilpark, Glasgow's drugs capital. This really was newsworthy: it attracted national television, the ultimate outward sign of inward turmoil for a school, and many were the statements that I and the police press office issued that day and for several thereafter.

But today, as the Scottish Executive awaits the results of its consultation with councils on proposed guidelines for dealing with drugs-related incidents in schools, the news value of drug abuse has slumped. A secondary school incident hardly makes the local paper, and only primaries make it on to the media at all, though usually not on television.

The only exception for secondaries is if they are fee-paying or rural, since in neither category - for some reasons known only to news editors - are these things supposed to happen.

Why do drugs no longer have the attraction for newshounds? It is either because the problem is now regarded as run of the mill in schools, or because most schools have had to accept that illegal drugs have long since become part of society. They therefore cannot be expected to stop them at the school gate, and headteachers deal with the matter without delay or shame.

That is the right approach. The police have to be involved, to make sure that the criminal activity of using or dealing in illegal substances is handled according to the law, as well as fairly and effectively, in the hope that schools can become drug free.

It was very different a decade ago as schools struggled to come to terms with the problem. I remember the headteacher of a well known high school in Glasgow suburbia, the sort of place where cars are large and curtains closed, phoning me in a state of excitement to say he had excluded two pupils for being in possession.

The police had been called, the boys charged. But their parents, proud professionals, threatened legal action, accusing the school of victimising their children, especially as everyone knew their community had no drug users. The media were knocking at the head's door. What was he to do?

We had a hurried discussion about the reputation of the school and the need to be honest. We agreed a statement that drugs were in the community, that the school had acted and would continue to act in co-operation with the police, and that the headteacher appealed to the wider dormitory area served by the school, and to the parents within it, to tackle the growing problem that could only be solved with their help.

It was a brave step to take. The media loved it and gave the head top marks, but there were some in the community and school who hated him for ever more for daring to suggest that all was not well in the community.

Now every time I handle a drug-related incident, I look back to that pioneering approach. It made a difference because it showed that a school was willing to deal with the problem honestly, but also that headteachers and their staff cannot be expected to solve a problem that is endemic in society on their own.

So that is the frank, straightforward message to keep giving out. But with the shift in news values, demanding ever more sensational drugs-in-school stories to merit publicity, there is less need for statements at all from heads or local authorities. Unless of course we move on to drugs in nurseries and playgroups.

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