New Zealand schools with most drug suspensions revealed

They're supposed to be at school for reading and writing, but these students are using their time for rolling and blazing.

New Zealand's schools with the most drug suspensions have been revealed in new OIA figures released to Newshub.

Last year, 448 secondary school students were suspended for drug use and 67 primary school students were suspended for their illegal substance abuse.

According to a 2012 survey, one in four secondary school students had tried cannabis. Three percent of secondary school students had tried ecstasy, and 0.6 percent had used methamphetamine.

"Alcohol and cannabis remain the two substances that youth alcohol and other drug services most commonly support young people with," says Drug Foundation education expert Ben Birks. He warns drug use by students tends to lead to worse school performance.

"Young people's brains are developing, and what happens during their teenage years can have a long term impact," he told Newshub.

"For example, cannabis use can lead to poorer learning, memory, and attention in the short term for teenagers."

The number of students suspended for drug use in 2017.
The number of students suspended for drug use in 2017. Photo credit: Newshub

Not surprisingly, some drug-using students were slow to catch on and were repeatedly caught.

"The total number of suspensions for drug use in secondary schools was 459 as some students were suspended more than once," the Ministry of Education told Newshub.

Tauranga Boys' College led the country with 14 suspensions, while Te Kauwhata College was second with 13. Both schools say their suspension numbers were due to students "experimenting with drugs".

"In 2017 we had a sudden rash of drug possession and some 'trying out' of marijuana amongst some of our youngest and as such, most vulnerable students," Te Kauwhata College principal Ms Hohneck says.

"The quantities of the drugs were very small, but we wanted to prevent any repetition or trivialising of the issue."

No South Island schools made the top list.
No South Island schools made the top list. Photo credit: Newshub

The problems don't start with the schools. New Zealand's high rates of drug and alcohol abuse amongst adults flows downwards towards the youth.

The Drug Foundation says schools are "well aware of the issues that their communities face" - and the school principals agree.

"We don't believe we have a problem at our school that is any more or less of a problem than it is for other New Zealand schools," Tauranga Boys' College principal Robert Mangan told Newshub.

"Sadly, the growing issue with drug use is more reflective of the wider drug use problem in New Zealand society, particularly amongst our young people."

Ms Hohneck says her college "works closely with our local police on this issue".

"The occasional appearances at school of a drugs dog and a police presence to reinforce the drug free message reassures the wider school community," she told Newshub.

Wellington police constable Stu Rota and his dog Dakota.
Wellington police constable Stu Rota and his dog Dakota. Photo credit: NZ Police / Supplied

But are suspensions the right answer?

Mr Birks says keeping students engaged in education has "massive benefits" for young people and the focus should be on providing support for students who are struggling.

"Drug use by students in school grounds is likely to start many school processes and would probably have a serious impact on a young person's education," he told Newshub.

"How we respond to a student's substance use has more of an impact on their education than the use itself."

Ms Hohneck argues suspensions can be "positive, proactive and responsive".

"A BOT [Board of Trustees] suspension brings all the parties around the table and students returned to school on conditions that ensure that they get the support that they need not to be tempted again," she says.

"Our 'return to school' package includes age appropriate counselling, as well as randomised drugs tests for students particularly at risk, in consultation with their whānau.

"Our approach has kept all but one of these students in our school. They are active, engaged and have not reoffended. Suspension alone would not have kept them safe and learning."

Tauranga Boys' College says it is confident that its zero tolerance drug policy is the right approach for students.

"It was important we sent a strong message around the seriousness of their offending, and as a result they were suspended," Mr Mangan told Newshub.

"This disciplinary process also allowed us the chance to engage with their parents and whānau as we addressed the issue together."

Ecstasy pills.
Ecstasy pills. Photo credit: Getty

How do we tackle this problem in the future?

The Ministry of Education says it's working hard to improve long-term outcomes for children, including a $35 million investment to expand the Behaviour Service. An additional 56 specialist staff will be recruited.

"We recognise that schools face real challenges supporting children and young people with challenging behaviour," the Ministry told Newshub.

"The Ministry provides a range of support to assist schools to manage challenging behaviour, including training workshops."

However Ms Hohneck believes there isn't enough support provided to help with students who are struggling.

"There is very little available to schools in the way of actions to take, or in supports from outside agencies to manage difficult situations," Ms Hohneck told Newshub.

"We use what we have in the most creative ways we can to get the best result for the pupils of our school."

Meanwhile, the Drug Foundation is working with some schools to provide educational packages and tools to help students.

"Our outdated approach of saying, 'Drugs are bad, don't do them' does not prepare young people to live in a world where alcohol and other drugs exist," Mr Birks says.