Northern Ireland schools' drug suspensions hit alarming levels
Around four pupils are being suspended by Northern Ireland schools every week on drug-related matters, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The number of suspensions for drugs hit a peak in 2014/15, during which 256 pupils were disciplined - an average of more than six per week.
Shocking statistics show that in the past five years almost 700 children - including those aged under 11 from primary schools - have been punished for taking illegal substances while in uniform or on the premises.
The figures obtained by this newspaper also reveal that the number of school days lost due to disciplinary action over drugs in Northern Ireland amounted to more than 2,800 between 2011/12 and 2015/16.
Former Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir said the numbers, which emerged following a Freedom of Information request, brought home the scale of the problem here.
Leading school principals added it was crucial that our schools and colleges maintain a zero tolerance approach to dealing with drug-related matters.
Last month the Belfast Telegraph revealed that six pupils in Years 10 and 12 were suspended by Belfast's prestigious Campbell College for incidents involving cannabis.
And in 2016 Bangor Grammar School suspended three 14-year-old Year 11 children for distributing and possessing illegal drugs.
Having tackled the issue head-on at the time, the principals at both schools were commended by Mr Weir, but the Strangford MLA added that more needed to be done to continue the good work.
"The figures revealed by the Belfast Telegraph for suspensions for drugs offences are truly shocking and should act as a wake-up for everyone," he said.
"It is particularly concerning that of nearly 700 pupils suspended over the last five years, a number of them were of primary school age.
"This shows the extent of the problem that society has to face up to and the need to take it extremely seriously."
The DUP representative added: "Having said that, I commend the response of our schools who have made the issue public, rather than the temptation to ignore the problem or sweep it under the carpet.
"It shows a need to tackle the issue properly, not just in our schools, but a responsibility for all of us, particularly parents, to have uncomfortable and honest conversations."
The Education Authority figures showed that 695 pupils in primary and secondary schools were suspended between 2011/12 and 2015/16 - an average of 139 a year, or almost four children weekly during the 39-week school year. The data shows that four times as many children were suspended in 2014/15 than in 2012/13, when 67 children were hit with sanctions.
While no exact figures were provided, in both 2011/12 and 2014/15 fewer than five primary school pupils aged under 12 were similarly punished.
Elizabeth Huddleson, head of Bangor Grammar, said it was "vitally important" for schools to deal robustly with drugs and to "continue to take a zero tolerance approach to this societal issue".
"Sadly, our young people nowadays find themselves bombarded with outside negative influences, one of which is easy access to drugs," she said.
"It is part of modern day society. As schools, it is crucial that we continue to educate our young people and their parents about the impact of taking drugs and potentially becoming drug-dependent including the various outcomes that can follow - lack of educational choices, associated debt and longer-term health issues."
Meanwhile, three leading east Belfast schools - Campbell College, Bloomfield Collegiate and Strathearn - have taken the unprecedented step of teaming up to tackle the growing problem of drugs among pupils.