As part of the International Youth Development Study, researchers at MCRI and the University of Washington, USA investigated whether anti-alcohol policies in public and private schools in Victoria and Washington state, were effective for students in years eight and nine.
What they found was that each school's particular policy mattered less than the students' perceived enforcement of it. Even if a school had a suspension or expulsion policy, if students felt the school didn't enforce it then they were more likely to drink at school. However, even if a school's policy was less harsh - such as requiring counselling - students were less likely to drink at school if they believed school officials would enforce it.
Even though Victorian and Washington schools have differing views in terms of alcohol use - Washington schools tend to have a zero-tolerance approach, whereas in Victoria, policies are more about minimising harm - the results were similar in both states.
"Whatever your school policy is, lax enforcement is related to more drinking on school grounds," said lead researcher, Dr Tracy Evans-Whipp.
In the study, 44% of Victorian students in year eight compared with 22% of year eight students in Washington reported drinking alcohol in the past month. Victorian students also reported much higher rates of binge drinking and alcohol-related harms.
Apart from perceptions about enforcement, harmful drinking behaviours in both states were reduced when students believed those who broke the rules would likely be counselled by a teacher on the dangers of alcohol use, rather than expelled or suspended.
The likelihood of binge drinking was reduced if students received an abstinence alcohol message or a harm minimisation message, and if they believed teachers would talk to them about the dangers of alcohol. Dr Evans-Whipp said such remediation policies are an important predictor of less harmful alcohol use among adolescents.
"The study shows harsh punishment for drinking on school grounds, such as calling the police or expelling the student, doesn't deter student alcohol use on school grounds. Instead, long-term negative impacts of expulsion mean students feel disconnected from school and may subsequently drink more."
"What we've seen in other studies from this sample is suspension policies actually worsen the behaviour problem," Dr Evans-Whipp said. "This highlights that although you want policies and you want enforcement of those policies, there are other ways of responding than suspension, expulsion and calling the police. Getting a student to talk to a teacher about how alcohol might be harmful, or a session with the school counsellor is best all round, the student concerned is less likely to drink and get into further trouble, and harmful drinking behaviours by other students at the school are reduced."
The study was published recently in the journal Health Education Research. This is the first longitudinal study to investigate the impact of student perceptions of school alcohol policies on adolescent drinking behaviours.