A SNIFFER dog runs its nose over a row of school lockers, trained to stop in its tracks when it detects a whiff of marijuana, ecstasy, amphetamines or other drugs.
The scene is not a crime-riddled US district but here in Queensland where illicit substances have become a major issue for educators. “It’s unbelievable how rife it is in schools. People would be horrified,” says Martin Dominick from the K9 Centre, who quietly takes drug detection dogs into Queensland schools about twice a year.
Drugs in schools came dramatically into focus when one of the state’s most exclusive schools last week announced “regular and random” drug tests on students.
The Southport School headmaster Greg Wain feared a public backlash but has been inundated with support from people who say it’s time to address doped-up kids in classrooms.
At Southport, the issue was so significant the school discussed bringing in sniffer dogs before choosing instead to drug-test students and expel anyone caught twice, Mr Wain confirmed to The Sunday Mail.
“I was hesitant about random drug testing because of the fact we have a great deal of trust here between the staff and the boys,” he said. “The fact is the boys see the advantages. The one thing they latched on to is it’s a really strong reason to say no.”
The latest Federal Government drug survey of 12 to 17 year olds shows use of substances including cannabis (15 per cent), inhalants (18 per cent), tranquilisers (19 per cent), amphetamines (5 per cent) and ecstasy (5 per cent) in 2008. There was a rise in drug use among girls and 16 to 17 year olds from the previous survey of 2005.
The latest Education Queensland figures show 160 students were expelled for illicit drug misconduct, 315 given long suspensions (six to 20 days) and 160 given short suspensions in 2010/11.
Experienced public and private school teachers say the discipline figures vastly understate the real extent of student drug use.
One Gold Coast teacher told how children could “get their hands on anything” because of their social network and access to older age groups.
“They’ve been caught in the toilet smoking marijuana. Their behaviour can get quite aggressive and they won’t follow orders.
“You can smell it on them. You can’t accuse them because you don’t know for sure. But your gut instinct tells you, this kid is stoned.
“It’s great what The Southport School wants to do and I hope that they can do it. Obviously there is a problem out there. It’s going to save their lives.”
A senior member of the independent schools community said:
“Over the last few years drugs have become more prominent as kids are able to get things outside of school very easily.
“They will tell you they can walk down the street or wherever and people will offer to sell it to you. It’s a very simple matter.
“Police, when we have let them know, are helpful but are just so busy with bigger things than kids getting marijuana.”
She added: “There are lots of schools around where kids coming in stoned or looking like they can’t cope are a problem and they don’t do anything about it. I’ve heard teachers say, ‘I see kids like this but what’s the point. Their parents don’t care, nothing will happen to them anyway so let’s get on with the job’.”
The Southport School’s move to drug test students should prompt other educators to reassess their approach, she said.
“It’s a very good wake-up call for everybody to turn round and say, ‘Is what we are doing effective, is there anything we are worried about or that we could get advice on to be able to improve things’.”
Civil liberties advocates are alarmed at the move and research indicates the tests have not reduced drug use in US schools.
The Queensland Teachers’ Union is also unconvinced, but admits drugs are a major problem for schools.
“We’re hearing about all sorts of clever ways to make these drugs more attractive to younger people. Schools are always a target,” president Kevin Bates said.
with Thomas Chamberlin, Lisa Cornish.