Child, 8, caught with drugs at school

More than 1000 schoolchildren were suspended, excluded or expelled from New Zealand schools last year for drugs or alcohol-related offences, with the youngest aged 8.

Figures released by the Ministry of Education show one in 10 of the children who were disciplined in connection with substances in 2012 was under 12.

Education representatives throughout the country said the problem of children taking drugs to school was widespread and had the potential to be exacerbated if the Education Amendment Bill passed into law.

But the New Zealand Drug Foundation said there was no "quick fix" to what was a serious problem and, ideally, no pupil would be removed from school for being caught with drugs.

New Zealand Principals' Federation president Phil Harding said every principal in the country had stories to tell.

"In my experience, schools reflect the societies in which we live," he said.

"When parents are smoking dope and have a stash, it's routine that kids will know about it and be curious about it."

Harding said it became a question of how to determine the intent that lay behind a child taking drugs to school.

"We have to exercise wise judgment to keep the kids and everyone at school safe in a culture like this."

He said there was an "underbelly" to New Zealand's drug culture.

"There are kids living in houses where drugs are being used till all hours of the night, and then we expect the same kids to turn up the next day at school and be compliant, motivated little learners," he said.

"There are innocent children wrapped up in this culture, and it falls back on the schools, boards and parents to protect them."

Secondary Principals' Association of New Zealand president Tom Parsons said the problem was "endemic" and "certainly a national issue".

"Irrespective of how old these kids are, they all got the drugs from adults," he said.

Concerns over the Education Amendment Bill, which clarifies pupils' privacy rights, have been raised by the sector.

The bill could limit schools' search and seizure powers, removing their ability to contract dog handlers to hunt narcotics taken on to school grounds and curbing the practice of ordering random drug tests.

Parsons said the bill may not go through in its current format that prioritised individual liberties, which would be "advantageous to everyone in the sector".

"You need to be able to look at what is the greatest good for the greatest number when required," he said.

"We have to take every step we can to make sure schools are fit for purpose, which is learning the curriculum."

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Brian Gower said the figures were indicative of a system where not enough support was being given to schools with those problems and which would be further undermined by the proposed legislation.

"Schools are doing their best to deal with the situation, and the legislation is not supporting them," he said.

"Unless there is an alternative put in place, [the bill] is creating a loophole and not supporting schools in dealing with the problem."

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Ross Bell said data showed a "really good trend" in a reduction in schools that resorted to exclusions and suspensions, but in a perfect world no pupil would be stood down for being caught with alcohol or drugs.

"One of the most important things we should be doing in New Zealand is ensuring that students who might be caught with alcohol or drugs are kept engaged in education because that is a huge protective factor," he said.

"Schools themselves are a really good environment to help protect people against drug abuse, and removing a child from school opens the door to bigger problems."

Bell referred to teenagers involved in sniffing butane, known as "huffing", which had potentially tragic consequences.

"A lot of the time they get into this sort of thing because they have been kicked out of school."

He did not expect schools to wave a "magic wand" to fix all these problems, and support needed to be provided to ensure best practice.

"There is a real role for the Government through the Ministry of Education, DHBs [district health boards] and the Ministry of Health to offer schools really good support services so there is a clear plan in place," he said.