What makes for an effective school alcohol policy?

No alcohol signAn effective school alcohol policy comes from many factors: senior leadership support; a whole school approach to drugs and alcohol; consultation with the school community; integrating education, support and prevention… you can find out more in our toolkit for schools revising their drug and alcohol policy.

A new piece of research looks at the impact of different approaches. It suggests that consistency of enforcement is the key factor rather than having harsh penalties.

The research was carried out in two places with very different attitudes to alcohol: Washington State, and Victoria, Australia. In the former, schools tend to adopt an abstinence approach more frequently enforced with harsh punishment (such as expulsion or calling the police), while in Australia the focus is more on harm minimisation strategies. While more students drank in the Australian sample, a similar proportion of drinkers in both countries experienced alcohol-related harms.

An interesting aspect of this study is that it used students’ reports of school policies and implementation and so is likely to reflect actual practice more closely than an examination of formal policy documents.

It was found that Year 8 students (aged 13-14) who perceived policies to be poorly enforced, in that students could drink on school grounds and get away with it, were more likely to drink on school grounds the following year. However, student perceptions of harsh penalties was not related to their probability of drinking on school grounds, once other factors had been adjusted for. Effects of school policies on drinking behaviour outside school were not detected in this study.

After adjusting for other variables, the likelihoods of both binge drinking and alcohol-related harms were reduced among students reporting exposure to alcohol harm minimisation messages (agreeing that in their school “We are taught how to use alcohol safely”). Exposure to abstinence messages (“We are taught to say no to alcohol”) was significantly associated with less binge drinking but not alcohol-related harm.

Students who thought that someone breaking rules about drinking in school would be counselled by a teacher on the dangers of alcohol use were less likely to  binge drink and experience alcohol-related harms.

Rethinking Zero Tolerance

The findings of this research resonate with attempts to reshape the concept of ‘zero tolerance’. Thanks to Anna Power of Nottingham DrugAware for the following definition:

“In this school, we will make every attempt to identify drug and alcohol issues before they become problematic. Zero tolerance means we will intervene quickly, every time, without hesitation and ensure that effective early intervention practice is used to respond to the issue.”

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