Tackling drug abuse at schools

Drug awareness campaigns in schools have “basically become a waste of time” and the only answer is to tackle the problem with professional training programmes.

That is the unequivocal message from Ashley Potts, director of the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre in Observatory, who revealed that many parents’ ambivalent attitudes towards drugs, coupled with the so-called “elite” schools being too ashamed to admit a problem exists, is undermining efforts to eradicate the scourge.

While as many as six pupils from southern suburbs schools are already being referred to the centre each week, Mr Potts said it was essential that funds be found to provide professional training at schools in the area.

To this end, he has written to the Western Cape Department of Social Development to ask it to consider a proposal for such a programme.

Principals at schools in the area have welcomed the proposal, with some saying the “better-resourced schools” are able to hide pupils’ drug use.

“About 60 percent of our intake are adolescents. What we are seeing are the schools waiting for a tragedy to happen, instead of understanding what drug use and abuse is really about. When a child from the specific school is caught doing drugs, the first response is that we should do an awareness campaign at the school, but this is basically a waste of time,” Mr Potts said.

“Some parents immediately respond that it is normal for teen-agers to experiment with drugs, and they are quite ambivalent about it. The other problem is that the schools are ashamed to admit that their pupils are taking drugs, and they prefer to suspend or even expel those pupils who are caught. That doesn’t help anyone.”

He said the proposed training programmes would be administered by professionals who would conduct a thorough assessment of the child in question, and then work with the school and parents to help them become effective support structures.

“We have to remove this stigma of shame that exists in order to move forward. It is our goal to make these programmes a policy at every school.”

Shaun Simpson, headmaster of Rondebosch Boys’ High School, described the drug centre’s proposal as “great”.

“Drugs are a problem in most schools, but you do find that the better resourced schools are able to hide it more. Any assistance would be welcome,” Mr Simpson said.

“We have a group that comes to talk to the pupils about drugs, but I think that is the tip of the iceberg. Intervention programmes, such as the one proposed, would be very useful.”

Groote Schuur High School principal Marius Ehrenreich was equally supportive of the proposal.

“You can never get too much help when it comes to drugs. We are incredibly aware of the exposure of the exposure children have to drugs,” he said.

“We already have a lot of drug awareness programmes at the school, so we would have to see how the training would be integrated. One of the challenges is that it is outside the school walls where the children are most exposed to drugs – public transport and their social lives. You have to work all the time on eliminating the drug scourge.”

Zonnebloem Boys’ Primary principal Deon May labelled the initiative “a step in the right direction”.

“If funding could be found, it would definitely lend a helping hand to parents and schools in tackling the problem.

“You can’t just expel the child, you actually need to sort out the problem,” he said.

Social worker Lizette Arendse said parents should not underestimate how freely available drugs had become for their children.

“I deal with a lot of kids from the southern suburbs, and all tell me that weed (dagga) and alcohol are everywhere at the house parties they go to. It’s the old story that weed is ‘just a herb’ and alcohol is not illegal, but it is naive to think that they will never become addicted to harder drugs,” Ms Arendse said.

“Obviously I can’t disclose the identities of the schools or pupils, but we get kids from across the southern suburbs, from Woodstock and Observatory to Wynberg. While a lot of our cases involve weed and alcohol, we also treat cases for mandrax and your so-called party drugs like magic mushrooms, LSD, cocaine and ecstacy.”

She said many parents were also allowing their children to go to trance parties, not realising that drugs were readily available at these events.

“The kids say they go for the music, but that’s not the case at all. The kids go for the drugs,” Mr Potts added.

He said one of the greatest challenges was that the children themselves were becoming desensitised to drugs and the dangers they presented.

“They see photographs shared by music artists and performers on social media like Instagram, images which glamorise drugs, and they think it’s okay. Bob Marley is a big thing again, the myths of peace and healing through smoking weed. All this plays a role,” Ms Arendse said.

While representatives of the Department of social development’s substance abuse programme were unavailable for comment at the time of going to press, Sihle Ngobese, spokesperson for Social Development MEC Albert Fritz, said any request for assistance to start a new initiative required all NGO partners to go through a formal and transparent funding application process.

“Part of our concerted effort to improve the funding model for NGOs was for these very reasons; to allow NGOs to put forward any ideas they may have for initiatives in a proposal,” he said.