4 February 2013

Uganda: How Alcohol, Drugs Get Into Schools

As the term opens, many students attempt to beat the system by smuggling alcohol and illicit drugs into the school, write Charles Etukuri and Petrina Kyobutungyi

Schools across the country officially re-open today, but some opened a week earlier. It is a busy time for parents as they are involved in last minute preparations which usually involve shopping and paying school fees.

However, Sunday Vision has found out that even as most parents prepare to take their children to school, a few bother to know what their children pack, or worse still, facilitate their children to pack illegal items to school.

Whereas some parents do the shopping for their children and help them pack their cases, others do not care. Several school heads and owners Sunday Vision talked to say they find themselves in a dilemma as schools reopen because some students end up smuggling dangerous items into the school.

In some of the cases, parents give their children huge amounts of pocket money, making the children easily access illegal substances available in the school's vicinity.

Some of the smuggled items include drugs, some of which even pass as sweets or chewing gums, alcohol, extra clothes and mobile phones, among other illegal things.

Kuber very common

But, the biggest threat to schools now is the new drug called Kuber, often disguised as a mouth freshener and is currently being sold in sachets similar to the ones used for packing tea leaves.

The drug is smuggled by most students and some schools innocently let them in, thinking they are tea leaves.

The nicotine-rich stimulant made in India is easily available in shops and is widely consumed by students, since it is not smoked but chewed.

"The drug does not have a smell to it and it makes children high," warns Fabian Amadia, the head of the Narcotics unit at the Uganda Police Force. Officials at the National Drug Authority describe Kuber as a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant.

CNS stimulants are drugs that increase behavioural activity, thought processes and alertness or elevate the mood of an individual. Examples are amphetamine, caffeine, nicotine and cocaine. Since it is imported as a mouth freshener, Kuber goes into the market without the approval of NDA.

Schools' experiences

Although most schools conduct searches on opening day, most students still beat the system.

"We check their cases at the gates and when we get anything illegal, we give it back to their parents and guardians, but some of these students devise ways of concealing illicit items," says Salim Nabiso, the deputy curriculum director at Kawempe Muslim Secondary School.

The head teacher of Mount St. Mary's Namagunga, Sister Seraphine Amulen, said in some cases, the school has recovered mobile phones, extra clothes and even alcohol in dormitories. She reveals that once, there was an incident where the school authorities found one of the students with alcohol.

The matter was brought to the attention of the school administrators when another student caught the distinct smell of alcohol. A search was mounted. The guilty student surrendered herself, but to the shock of the administration, she told them it was her mother who bought her the alcohol.

"When we asked her she told us that it was her mother who had bought for her the alcohol. She had convinced her parents that since she was about to sit for exams, alcohol would help her keep awake and enable her read well so that she could get good results," says the head teacher. The girl was immediately expelled.

Other school heads who talked to Sunday Vision say sometimes it is hard to detect a student carrying alcohol.

A student told Sunday Vision how she used to smuggle bottles of V&A into school in the pretext that it was honey. "I would remove the label so that it is hard for them to detect it was wine and since it had a similar look to honey, the teachers could not detect it was not," says the student. Some students hide sachets of alcohol and drugs in flasks, pillow cases or even mattresses.

Neighbourhood a big threat

But it is the school neighborhoods that pose a bigger challenge to the school owners. In cases where the students have excessive amounts of pocket money, they need not pack, but can buy illicit items like marijuana and alcohol which are available within the school vicinity.

The biggest culprits are the guards and even sadly, many teachers who are substance abusers themselves.

A guard in one of the schools located along Masaka Road admitted that at times they smuggle some of the items for the students. "If he is tipping me well, why should I not bring in the things he wants?" he says.

According to Rogers Kasirye, the executive director of the Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL), one of the pioneer NGOs dealing with drug and substance abuse, the availability of drugs in the vicinity of schools is proof that no child is safe.

UYDEL has handled some of the cases of students who have been expelled. "When we talk to them, they tell us that they easily accessed the drugs from the school neighbourhood," says Kasirye.

A former student of Manjasi High School says even when the school authorities became tough and conducted searches in their suit cases, they used obtain alcohol and drugs from the neighbourhood.

"We could sneak to Naluwerere where alcohol was easily available for as cheap as sh200 and the same applied to marijuana," he says.

Some students befriend the locals within the school vicinity and hide items that they are sure can be confiscated by the school authorities during the searches.

"The locals then smuggle the items through the fences and the students bring them into the dormitories," says a teacher in one of the schools we visited.

Foreign Students

A proprietor who has more than three schools in the central region, says the biggest challenge they face is foreign students who come with some of these vices.

"Most of these students come from very rich families and get exposed to drugs and alcohol at a much earlier age and when they come here, they influence our students," the proprietor says.

False heroes

Kasirye says some of the students who beat the system become instant celebrities and pose a real threat to other students. They can easily influence other students through peer pressure and those recruited end up hooked to the habit.

Link to violence

Kasirye says some of the vices that result in drug and alcohol addiction could possibly explain the wave of unrest in schools. "The violence we have witnessed in some of these schools points to a quiet crisis in schools caused by the growing prevalence of drug abuse, alcohol and lack of care for those afflicted," says Kasirye.

Drug and alcohol abuse is associated with a variety of negative consequences including school failures, violence, poor judgment, accidents, illicit and unsafe sex, suicide and serious drug use later in life.

Pocket money dilemma

Most parents find themselves in a dilemma over the amount of money to give their children. Sometimes they may give too much or too little. Some do not know whether to give money at all.

Kasirye says giving a child too little or too much pocket money could affect the students' academic performance.

According to Kasirye, the best thing a parent can do is liaise with their child's school and find out about their policy on pocket money so that one can be able to determine how much to give.

Whereas some schools tend to limit the amount of money one should have and that the money be deposited with the school bursar, others do not have any policy.

Kasirye says it is dangerous for parents to give their children huge amounts of money. When they have done all the shopping they require, anything above sh50,000 per term is excessive," he warns.

He adds: "First talk to him or her and ask what they intend to do with the money so that you get the idea on how much to give."

"You can easily spoil him or her as the money can facilitate their access to drugs and alcohol," Kasirye adds.

But then failure to give the child enough pocket money can also lead the child to develop some negative vices like theft to supplement their needs.

Schools also share blame

Kasirye says school administrations seem not to care and tend to concentrate so much on examination results and do not take much interest in their students' welfare. "The students are left to go wild, thus creating a culture that encourages drug and substance abuse," he says.

What should be done?

Schools should establish counselling and health education forums to provide information, education and communication materials for students.

Kasirye says teachers should complement a school's drug abuse programme by incorporating prevention strategies into their subjects at all levels.

Parents, school boards, teachers and concerned groups should collaborate to ensure successful programmes. They can prevent their children from using drugs by talking to them about drugs, open communication, role modelling and responsible behaviour.

But above all, parents should make sure that they monitor what their children pack in their cases and schools should conduct periodic searches in their dormitories to curb on illegal items entering the school.

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