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What role, if any, does law enforcement play in school-based drug education?

Last week’s blog entry on my thoughts around ‘ice education’ certainly sparked a great deal of interest and was most probably one of my most shared posts ever … I also received quite a lot of emails with questions and comments and something that kept coming up was the role of police in the delivery of school-based drug education. So many schools, both here and around the world, use local police officers in the classroom and I was asked my thoughts on whether I believed that this could be useful. I have very strong views on this topic and any teacher who has ever attended a professional development session of mine would know that, put simply, I don’t think police officers should ever be used to deliver drug education in schools. Ever!

Now before all the police officers who read my blog or follow me on Facebook and the like have a nervous breakdown – I am not saying they shouldn’t be working in schools and talking to students – I’m simply saying that they are not drug educators. There are two areas to consider here:

  • Firstly, what is drug education? As I said in my post last week, drug education is not the same as drug information provision. As well as hopefully improving knowledge, school drug education should provide opportunities for students to build skills and confidence – helping them to develop refusal strategies when offered substances, build resilience and be better able to resist peer and social pressure and so much more.
  • Secondly, when we look at the role police can play in this area we need to remember what their area of expertise is – i.e., their knowledge of the law. Most police will tell you that they know little about drugs – they certainly know a great deal about the criminality associated with alcohol and other drug use and the impact that drugs can have on the wider community – but that’s about it.

I received a number of emails from teachers last week who were concerned that in response to the ‘ice epidemic’ their school had recently decided to ask a local police officer to come and speak to students about the dangers associated with the drug. Sometimes this talk was given at a whole school assembly with a range of year groups being present … this is frightening and, to my mind, totally inappropriate. What in heavens would a police officer (or anyone else for that matter) say in this context and do they really have the expertise and knowledge to conduct such a session?

Police certainly have a role in schools. Youth Liaison Officers (YLOs) operate in most states and territories (they may have different names in different jurisdictions) and are police officers who express an interest in working with young people and are then provided training and support to do this within a law enforcement framework. Some of the YLOs I have worked with over the years have been the most amazing people, totally committed to what they do and they work hard to develop strong and positive relationships with young people in their area (sometimes in very difficult circumstances, often meeting great resistance to the work they do even from their colleagues). Many of them work closely with local schools to strengthen these relationships and staff truly appreciate the work they do. It is important, however, to remember that these officers are not educators and they should not be put into a situation where they are being asked to teach. They are a valuable resource and schools need to use them where it is appropriate but to get a police officer to stand up in front of a class and talk about ice, or any other drug, makes no sense at all! Ask any police officer and they will tell you they get little, if any, education about drugs – what they learn they learn from their job and it is important to remember that that experience is not necessarily representative of drugs and drug use in the wider community.

Where police can be so useful in school-based drug education is to assist the classroom teacher to provide information on questions around the law and how it applies to young people – that is their area of expertise! There have been many times over the years where I have asked if the local YLO could attend a presentation I was giving so they could address any questions that may come up around the law – I’m not an expert in that area, to have someone on hand who is can be really useful. Police are used so well in primary schools where they are asked to cover issues like road safety and ‘stranger danger’ – in these sessions they talk about the law and the consequences of breaking the rules of the road or the importance of reporting inappropriate behaviour. In my experience, they are not used nearly as well in secondary schools.

In high schools, some of the topics I believe that police can cover extremely well are as follows:

  • the laws around alcohol provision at parties and gatherings – i.e., what will happen to your parents if you have a party at your house and police attend and anyone under the age of 18 years is drinking alcohol?
  • the ‘caution system’ – what does getting a ‘caution’ mean and how will it impact your future?
  • what are the implications for getting a ‘criminal record’ for illicit drugs? How will this affect your future life?
  • how does random breath testing (RBT) work? What is the process and what are the consequences for a p-plater?
  • how does roadside drug testing (RDT) work? What is the process? What drugs are tested for and what are the consequences for a p-plater?
  • how do drug detection dogs work? Are the rules different for a juvenile? What are the consequences if you get caught with illegal drugs?

Knowing what the law is and how it applies to them is important for all students. But once again it is important to remember that police officers are not trained educators – they should never be put in front of a class of young people and simply be asked to give a lecture on the legal risks associated with alcohol and other drug use. You only have to look at the DARE program that ran in the US in the 90s to see that not only is this not effective, it can actually have a negative effect (one study found that students who had been in DARE classes (a program then taught by police officers in elementary schools) were more likely to use drugs than those who had not been through the program! One of the reasons for the failure of the program was believed to be due to it being delivered by police officers – they weren’t trained educators, they had no relationship with the students and it was a lecture. If police area going to be used, the classroom teacher and the officer need to work together and the lesson should be interactive, with perhaps questions being written up by the students beforehand … teens know what they want to know in this area, provide the unique opportunity for them to ask those questions to someone who is most likely to know the answer.

Police officers, particularly YLOs, are a valuable resource for schools but they need to be used appropriately. They are not educators and they are certainly not experts on all things alcohol and other drugs – to use them as such is risky. With the continued hysteria around ice there is bound to be greater pressure put onto schools to provide education on the topic, something many teachers do not feel equipped to deliver. Unfortunately, as a result, some schools will resort to turning to police officers to assist them in this area – a group of professionals who do not have the training or the expertise to do this effectively. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens next – the National Ice Taskforce will be delivering its report, including its recommendations, to the Australian Government soon and it’s guaranteed to include something about schools and drug education. Let’s hope that common sense prevails and something positive (and based on best practice) is suggested … I’m not holding my breath though …

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