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Media Articles - 2000s

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10 December 2002
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Before drugs get hectic, get help

The Teacher, South Africa
By Hazel Friedman
3 June 2002

Due to be released this month, the Department of Education (DoE) has developed a policy for dealing with drugs in schools. These guidelines are meant to help schools effectively prevent, manage and treat learners who abuse or are dependent on drugs. The policy is also meant to assist those who do not use drugs themselves, but who may be affected by the drug use of others.

Significantly, learners experiencing pro-blems as a result of drug dependency will be entitled to appropriate assistance and will not be denied the opportunity to receive an education or the right to be reintegrated into the school. Gone is the punitive approach of the past when smoking a "spliff" on the rugby field would mean instant expulsion. Only in cases where the learner does not accept counselling and other interventions will the school have no choice but to take action, which may include suspension or expulsion.

"In the past, individual schools had their own codes of conduct regarding drugs," says the co-ordinator of Safe Schools in the Western Cape, Brian Jeftha. "We're now aiming for a more integrated approach."

To this end a call centre with a toll-free line has been set up to provide counselling for learners struggling with drugs and alcohol in both rural and urban areas. Although the toll-free number is national, to date the Western Cape is the only province where the helpline is fully operational.

In fact, perhaps because of the extent of the problem, the Western Cape appears to be better-equipped than other provinces to deal with drug abuse among learners. Since its establishment three years ago, Safe Schools has implemented several measures which include using NGOs to provide drug awareness, prevention and intervention programmes aimed at educators, learners and their families.

Jeftha says that 40% of the R13-million budgeted for Western Cape schools' development needs has been allocated towards drug prevention and intervention programmes. He admits that many schools, particularly in disadvantaged areas, are still too hopelessly under-resourced to cope with the problem alone.

"Drugs are always going to be around in one form or another," says Sarah Fisher, a former addict and founder of Bridges, a non-profit organisation offering preventative education to schools on the dangers of drug abuse and addiction.

Apart from high-impact programmes available to both affluent and disadvantaged schools, Bridges also provides intervention services and referrals to treatment centres. Teachers are included in the programmes and Bridges has also encouraged the introduction of drug-related issues into the school curriculum. In 2001 Fisher was appointed by the DoE to help drive the process for developing the national drug and alcohol policy.

"Our philosophy at Bridges is based on empowering young people to make informed decisions when faced with drug-related issues and to access help when necessary," says Fisher. "We do this in a language they can understand."

She likens addiction to a lift going downwards. The closer one gets to the bottom the faster the lift falls.

"We tell students they can push the button at any floor and get off. The closer they get to the bottom the harder it becomes to climb back up. But no matter how low, you can still push the button and ask for help.

"Our focus at Bridges is to look not simply at the substance of abuse but also the behaviour behind it," says Fisher. She also cautions parents against over-reacting to signs of normal adolescence. After all, many children never cross the line into addiction, although they may experiment with drugs.

Scare tactics are not that effective: "For example, you can't tell teenagers that drugs kill, because they simply have to look at the excesses of adults - be it through alcohol or prescription drugs - to know that this isn't necessarily true."

Instead, Bridges uses slogans like "Don't get hectic, get help!" to get the message through.

Founded in 1996, Bridges is the most widely endorsed and utilised programme in Western Cape schools. Other reputable initiatives include the Drug Counselling Centre's youth outreach programme, headed by Grant Jardine. Then there's Narcotics Anonymous, Sanca and the Drug Education Agency (DEA). Run by former addict Damian Johnson, the DEA has recently started a programme called Pathfinders that trains recovered addicts to provide personal testimonies of addiction and recovery to schools.

"Teenagers appreciate honesty", explains Johnson, "so what better approach than having someone telling then first hand what it is like to be a drug addict." The recovered addicts are referred to Johnston by rehabilitation centres. They complete a four-week training seminar for lay-counsellors and sign a one-year contract to work with schools.

But without proper departmental co-ordination, the danger exists that get-rich-quick schemers will hop on the bandwagon. For example, an organisation calling itself Narconon recently submitted a proposal to Safe Schools. It has since been exposed as a front for the Church of Scientology. Narconon is not connected to accredited drug treatment programmes such as Narcotics Anonymous - which sometimes goes by the name Narcanon.

"The road to hell is usually paved with good intentions," says Fisher. "But coping effectively with substance abuse - as with any serious disease - requires specialised, experienced and scientifically-based treatment."

But how does one evaluate the efficacy of drug prevention programmes in schools? The DEA's Johnston believes two to three years of research should demonstrate a programme's effectiveness. Fisher, however, believes that such evaluations are extremely difficult and it is almost impossible to measure how much drug abuse has been prevented.