By ‘Majirata Latela
Lekokoaneng LECSA High School is one of the schools in the Berea district which for many years has faced the challenge of substance abuse among learners.
Although Lesotho does not have clear data on substance abuse in schools, the ministry of education and training admits that the situation is deplorably rife in these education facilities and needs to be addressed with urgency.
theReporter has this week visited one of the schools in Berea where the school is concerned about students’ behaviour and would like to be assisted.
The principal ‘Manthatisi Seloana lays bare a catalogue of traumatic events at the school, of children who abuse the likes of dagga, glue and cigarettes.
She recounted that in the years 2015-2019, the school had a terrible experience of students who abused drugs, both girls and boys in grades as low as grade 8.
“We have had challenges with many of our kids found to be using drugs during and after school hours and also in the premises. I remember when we first noticed that the practice has gone out of hand, I had called upon our teachers to think about how to establish the veracity of allegations that the children actually smoked,
“We did a thorough investigation; we would conduct random body searches during assembly time and at the beginning we used to find cigarettes and dagga in the learners’ school bags and pockets. However, when they were caught in possession of substances they resorted to hiding the dagga in their lunch boxes between slices of bread.
“We then decided to randomly sniff their hands and their breath and we would detect the whiff of the drugs on them. But they were always a step ahead and would still find a way to outwit us at every turn. They resort to using clothes pegs as cigarette holders so their hands do not reek of cigarette smoke,” she said.
Seloana added that those found to be smoking usually admitted to substance abuse, forcing the school management to engage parents and guardians to warn their children of the hazards of smoking on their health.
Seloana said because the school is surrounded by villages where initiation is rife, many of the children enrol in the traditional rite of passage ahead of beginning secondary schooling.
One way or the other, the teachers were able to convince and invite their initiation school instructors to come over to have a heart to heart talk with the initiated learners and plead with them to stay away from drugs. They somewhat managed get through to them, and we noticed a change in the behaviour.
The decision to call in the intervention of the initiation instructors was usually made when some of the initiated learners become cheeky and openly defied their teachers.
Learners who took prohibited substances began to show a significant drop in their academic performance.
“The biggest challenge with these kids who are smoking is that they become very disrespectful. On one occasion, a student was found in possession of a firearm and a lot of cash (M50,000) which he had stolen from his home. The gun was found in the learner’s school bag while the money was found hidden somewhere in the village. This, after the student’s father had rushed to the school upon realising that his weapon and cash was missing.
“In another shocking instance, some girls were found sniffing glue. Upon being questioned about the act, it emerged that they had fallen victim to peer pressure. They would even go to smoke in toilets in the middle of lesson; that showed just how addicted they had become. Some of them open up and revealed everything to us.
“As teachers, we even spoke to them and showed them the negative effects of smoking, but we seemed to have reached a dead end. The only course open to us was to seek help from the Berea police child and gender protection unit (CGPU),” she said.
On the other hand, the ministry of education and training’s chief executive officer of secondary schools, ‘Mabakubung Seutloali said even though there has not been a study to show the extent of substance abuse, they are aware that many children do smoke and use drugs.
“Substance abuse is a huge challenge among learners in both rural and urban schools. As the ministry of education, development partners and the ministry of health, we do make efforts to help these students stay off drugs.
“We now have an initiative dubbed Learner Support which is intended to teach students about good health and the negative effects of substance abuse; health education tops the agenda of the programme,” Seutloali explained.
As a result, the programme – that includes counselling exercise – is yielding positive results as some of the addicts do quit.
However, Seutloali lamented that Covid-19 has disrupted many of their programmes which were channelled towards helping students and teachers to take care of themselves and refrain from adverse behavioural activities likely to jeopardise their future.
“Now that students are back in school we have from the beginning of the month started having refresher courses on social support with the backing of non-governmental organisations. The aim is to inculcate good health practices among the learners while in and out of school.
“Substance abuse is a very crucial topic that needs parents to also play their part in providing support to their kids because some children have become addicts who require stern counselling,” she said.
According to a study conducted by ‘Malitaba Matji for Lesotho Network on anti- smoking in October 2001, the World Health Organisation found that alcohol, tobacco and drug-related problems in Africa are becoming more and more a public health concern. Similarly, Lesotho is experiencing this growing threat.
The study carried out in 1999 found that 65 percent of the 62 street children who were followed up at a street kid project of Lesotho Girl Guides association used alcohol, cannabis and glue.
It says clinical data from psychiatrist institutions shows that mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol and cannabis are among the first three common psychiatric disorders.
Meanwhile, Berea district police chief, Senior Superintendent ‘Mapuleng Setsomi has emphasised that substance abuse is one of the key issues that need to be addressed by all stakeholders to make sure that students do behave.
Setsomi said they recently visited one of the high schools in Teyateyaneng to address the issue, and the teachers have since reported a noticeable change in the learners’ behaviour.