How to manage a drug incident in your school?
For a first year teacher or other school staff member yet to encounter a drug incident, while it is satisfying to be trusted with your professional judgment, it is most likely daunting. So that’s where we come in to provide some guidance.
Education departments provide ‘generalised’ procedural steps to use if a drug incident occurs. But first, you need to know if you have encountered a drug incident.
A drug incident can include one or more of the following;
- Suspicion, possession or distribution of illegal or unsanctioned drug use
- Suspicion or use of illegal or unsanctioned drug paraphernalia
- Drug use by adults on school grounds
- Drug use by adults where students are present
Be aware that illegal drug use can involve legal drugs. For example, if a student is selling prescription medication then this is illegal behaviour.
Where there is no evidence of drug use but a staff member has a suspicion, it is definitely wise to proceed with caution. Drug use should never be underestimated or ignored but it is a big accusation to make without reasonable suspicion.
If you have been notified or witnessed a drug incident, your next steps will be crucial to ensuring there is a positive outcome for the individual/s involved and your school community.
The first concern is for the health of the individual/s, particularly if they have used the drug. First aid may be required and like any first aid incident, the individual/s may not be in a position to disclose information to assist you about what they have taken. Others in contact with the affected individual/s or in the vicinity may be able to assist with further information to ensure the best health care is provided.
Due to the severity of a drug incident, senior staff are usually involved in the management of the incident. It is best to check your state or organisation drug policy and school drug policy as to what staff must be involved at what step. For example, the NSW Education Department is very descriptive and clear in its policy that staff notify the principal immediately. Some states also clearly outline how the education department is to be notified whether via a hotline or to a department staff member of any drug incident.
In many school systems, the investigative part of the management process will be conducted by the principal or senior staff. Though in some circumstances, information may have been disclosed to another staff member. This could be you. Alternatively, the individual/s may be apprehensive about sharing information due to the fear of the consequences. For the welfare of the individuals and the school community, it is essential to find out:
- The type of drug/s used (poly drug use?)
- Legal, illegal or unsanctioned drugs
- Location that it was used
- Method of use
- People involved directly and indirectly
It is important that staff use appropriate lines of questioning. This is why the majority of policy documents will recommend referring to the principal or senior staff member as soon as possible.
The principal or senior staff will need to consider a range of factors when investigating the drug incident with the individual/s.
|Age||If a student is involved, their parents/guardians will need to be notified immediately before entering into the investigative process. They will be crucial in the management of the incident and the future well-being of the student. Though, in some circumstances, if the student is 16 or older, there may be privacy rights that restrict the staff member from disclosing information to the parents/guardians.|
If an adult is involved, the staff member may choose to involve the police immediately for safety reasons.
|Maturity||The individuals’ maturity level may inhibit the investigative process by a lack of understanding of the questions being asked.|
|Gender||It is recommended staff members are accompanied by at least one other staff member and ensure there is a gender balance, particularly if the primary staff member and individual/s are of the opposite gender.|
|Ethnic/Cultural Background||Drug use may be a normal custom for some individuals and it may not be viewed as illegal or unsanctioned.|
Staff may need to ascertain whether the drug has been used or a quantity still remains by conducting a search of the individual/s. If this is required, police need to be notified to conduct the search. The only exception to this is if the individual/s are willing to empty pockets or remove shoes to clear themselves. Some school’s will also include in their drug policy that they are allowed to search school property eg. school lockers, school drawers (Department of Education). Though all staff should consider how this may interfere with evidence if illegal drugs are found. Otherwise, supervise the individual/s until police arrive and follow the proper process in notifying the parent/s or guardian/s.
If the drug/s used or in possession are illegal, the school has a legal obligation to notify police. If the drug is unknown, police can identify the drug/s. Staff need to be conscious of documenting who handled the drug/s before handing over to police.
A drug incident may attract media attention. Education departments suggest contacting their legal team for advice on how to handle this. As a starting point, you need to understand the negative impact of making ‘no comment’ and know what the school’s basic statement is if you’re the first person approached by the media.
The principal and/or senior staff will decide what staff will be notified of the incident. In many circumstances, not all staff will be notified to protect the privacy rights of the individual/s involved.
While the principal and senior staff manage the individuals directly involved, other support staff may be asked to support others eg. those who witnessed the incident. In exceptional circumstances, drug use may be paired with violence. Again, staff should use all necessary supports available in the school, locally and regionally.
Throughout the management process, actions should be documented. Reporting is a familiar task for you and your colleagues and in this instance as important as ever. Incident reports need to be completed in a timely manner as the police and education department may require these. Where applicable, school staff should meet legal and duty of care responsibilities by completing necessary mandatory reporting.
Documentation allows staff to thoroughly review and reflect upon the management process and will assist if future incidents occur.
As school staff, we only want the best outcomes for the individual/s we encounter, whether students, parents or others in the school community. The management of a drug incident should promote the continued education of the individual/s. This is strongly emphasised in policy documents Australia wide. Most importantly, the process should encourage healthier lifestyles for the individuals into the future and should certainly not cause any further harms eg. social stigmatisation that may cause the young person to disassociate from schooling or negatively affect their mental health1.
As a school community, drug incidents should increase awareness about the importance of implementing effective harm minimisation strategies. Harm minimisation goes way beyond the punitive discipline that may be involved in a drug incident. It aims to prevent and intervene for all individuals within the school community, particularly those most vulnerable to drug use.
This requires engaging young people, parents and others associated with the school community in age appropriate, engaging alcohol and other drug education as well as education that strengthens the protective factors to drug use and minimises the risk factors (NSW Department of Education and Training 2010). Encounter Youth continues to provide this to school communities Australia wide through our Party Safe Education Program.
This blog does not aim to replace policy documents relevant to your school. Rather it aims to provide a concise overview of managing a drug incident, particularly for those new to the school system and to encourage harm minimisation and prevention strategies to avoid encountering a drug incident in the first place. We strongly advise school staff to read supporting policy documents relevant to your school to ensure you have a detailed understanding of managing a drug incident.
Many of the policies across Australia suggest contacting the drug education consultant or similar with a drug incident. We know that many of these positions have been made redundant since these policy documents were created. Therefore, if you require support in this area, please contact Encounter Youth for further assistance.
1Department of Education and Children’s Services 2011. Intervention Matters. Second edition.