Making our schools safe from drugs

There are many institutions and agencies both in the public and the private sectors that can make valuable contributions in the fight against drugs. They should not sit on the fence…

It is most worrying and disturbing to learn about the proliferation of drugs in our schools despite the considerable efforts put up by various stakeholders to combat the problem. The media has repeatedly brought to our attention the prevalence of drugs among students and various measures have been advocated and suggestions made for a curriculum on drug education; it appears that one such curriculum has been put in place. a drug education curriculum must be carefully thought out because there is always the high risk that even such a measure might not prove an effective remedy to the drug problem. We will require expertise in curriculum development in that particular area and in its implementation, a vast amount of resources and the collaboration of various stakeholders. For example, if at the very initial stage we do not make a needs assessment, we may propound unworkable solutions, and then be perhaps wrongly blamed for paying lip service to such an urgent problem which is already putting the young and future generations at risk. We should not embark on anything just for the sake of deflecting criticisms that we have remained indifferent to a catastrophic situation. We have to do things properly, and one should not hesitate to get expert advice and assistance from UNESCO to deal with the present situation.

Other countries with a vast amount of resources are still grappling with substance abuse in schools though they have invested and continue to put resources in all aspects of drug education. In Mauritius, a National Drug Observatory has been set up and its reports provide valuable information on the drug scene in the island. High-risk schools have been identified and a sensitization campaign is being carried out. Even when a few schools have come in the spotlight, we must be careful in the media not to unwittingly stigmatize or generalize on a particular situation in the absence of solid and hard facts. We would then run the risk of making drug-taking become the norm in a school or among a particular age-group.

One has to think of the best approach to suit our local conditions. Research is crucial for the development of any curriculum: a copy-paste curriculum is of little value. In the absence of local research, we have to fall back on research in other countries and draw critically from their findings. In some countries, research has shown that a curriculum on drug education on its own is ineffective and even harmful. It is thus important that before we embark on any curriculum development, we undertake a survey in all our secondary schools not particularly about drug prevalence but about the personal, social and health needs of the student population. The same survey will also elicit information on substance abuse. If it cannot be done at the national level, it can be carried out in a sample of schools. We may also encourage schools to carry out their own surveys with some guidance from the authorities such as the relevant ministries or Statistics Mauritius.

What we learn about the drug situation in schools in other countries may not be the same in our schools. It is self-evident that for a proper diagnosis, we need to contextualize the problem. There will be differences in different school situations or between boys’ and girls’ schools. There are high-risk schools and schools where drugs may not be a problem. It is only after this preliminary and crucial piece of work has been completed that we can think of possible strategies.

Any strategy will require setting up priorities,such as targeting the high-risk schools or even certain grades within a particular school. Such curriculum should not stand on its own, as this is being decried by research in some countries, but should be embedded in a more holistic framework such as Good Behaviour Education, Civic Education, Health Education or Skills education. This does not prevent any drug education curriculum from being integrated in the school curriculum in the upper primary or even earlier as part of physical, moral and social education. A broader curriculum framework is necessary to tackle a number of other issues as well such as health problems, sex education, violence, bullying, peer pressure, rebelliousness, low self-esteem, etc. At each grade level, age- appropriate programmes must be devised and such a curriculum must be spread over several years to be effective.

As we all know the drug situation is a dynamic one and we have to even plan ahead and stay abreast of changes in the drug scene. The National Drug Observatory Report should record what is taking place but must also evaluate, work out projections and make research an important component of its activities. In 2008 when the Headteacher’s and Rector’s management manuals were prepared, drugs were not an important issue in schools; these manuals must therefore be updated. In Britain, a Home Office Report to be published in the course of the week has identified how student dropouts from schools are being groomed by gangs to distribute drugs in schools and as a result intelligence is focused on drug networks .In Mauritius, it is known that children are being equipped with mobile phones to alert drug peddlers of the presence of the police. There is an urgent need for police officers to work with social scientists to unravel many issues linked with substance abuse.

But equally important in the implementation of the curriculum are the teaching strategies. The National Drug Observatory’s Report highlights mostly sensitization campaigns at the secondary level and sometimes visits by health officers or by external agencies. While sensitization campaigns are only a beginning, they are on their own ineffective in bringing about behavioural change. Moreover it has been seen to be inadequate and must be supplemented by other strategies that have proved to be more effective in other countries. Awareness is essential but not enough. We must equip our students with life skills, skills in refusing and resisting drugs, critical thinking, problem solving, decision-making and the capability to be resilient.

Teaching strategies can incorporate these skills in the different subjects and teachers must deploy a variety of interactive strategies. Lecturing and moralizing will not engage students. Visitors can be knowledgeable and credible but have limited impact if the class is reduced to passive learners. Bringing ex-drug users can be popular in the school context, but in other countries this has had negative consequences. We had initially thought that some UNESCO specialists could train a batch of teachers and disseminate best practices in our schools. In the Mauritian context, it seems that this is demanding too much from the authorities and there is no alternative but to nudge some agencies – public and private – to take some initiatives along these lines.

It has become a cliché to call upon the collaboration of all stakeholders to pull in their efforts to combat drugs in the country and in our schools. However difficult it is to build collaborative endeavour, wider collaboration is a must. At the school level, management, parent-teacher associations, the teaching staff and assistance from other organizations and agencies are necessary not only to have a comprehensive picture of the situation in schools but also to come up with strategies and solutions that are appropriate and effective.

There is no reason why the Mauritius Research Council, which has both the human and the financial resources, cannot help in carrying a survey on substance abuse in schools or enlist the support of the universities for research on the drug situation. There are many other institutions and agencies both in the public and the private sectors that can make valuable contributions. They should not sit on the fence and watch the situation degenerate but must take the initiative and volunteer their contribution.

 


* Published in print edition on 12 October 2018

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