King’s College suspends students in drug sting

Three News is reporting tonight that Auckland’s prestigious King’s College has suspended two students after a drug sting involving outside security consultants.

The background to this story follows:


Kings College keeps getting the kind of publicity no school wants, but it’s a crucible of fire that may be helping forge a big shift in public attitudes to teen alcohol and drug use


Kings College principal Bradley Fenner runs his fingers through his silver hair as the TV crews make last minute adjustments to their equipment. The dapper Australian running one of New Zealand’s premium scholastic addresses has had more than his fair share of publicity in the past 18 months, and nearly all of it for the wrong reasons.

On his left and off to the side, the eagle eyes of former TVNZ Breakfast producer Liz Kirschberg scour the street for signs of any other media. A mother with a child at Kings, she’s stepped into the role as PR-minder for the school as it grapples with the fallout from yet another student death – the fourth since 2009. She’s not happy Investigate HIS magazine is still around.

“I’m trying to protect Bradley,” she exclaims. “He’ll do these TV interviews but we are not speaking to Investigate magazine today. We’ll decide later this week whether we want to be part of the story you are doing. We’re telling all the media the same thing.”

“It’s a public street,” we remind her.

I later discover Kings had endured a run in with Metro Magazine last year, which might have had a bearing on how the school viewed print media.
“He got a bit huffy with Metro magazine and withdrew access,” wrote Michelle Hewitson in the Herald. “He said, mildly, that he thought the article, in the end, ‘wasn’t as bad as it might have been’.”

To be fair to Fenner this crisp June morning, he looks like a possum in the headlights, being wheeled from interview to interview. He’s been on breakfast radio. As I drive home that evening I’ll hear him again on the ZB Drive show.

It’s the same question everyone wants answered: what the heck happened? How did a 17 year old go from the highlight of the school’s social calendar to an hour later being found on the motorway underneath an overbridge?

“Were drugs involved?” TV3’s Tony Reid asks Fenner. “I can’t comment on that,” the principal demurs, batting away that question-line. It’s fairly common knowledge that drugs were involved, but it’s a sensitive subject at a very sensitive time. It’s clearly going to be a long week.

In the grounds of the college, its 950 pupils mingle quietly and go about their business. Occasionally there’s a hug, and there are plenty of sombre faces, but I see no tears in public. Once an exclusively male school, Kings now admits girls for their final two years.

At one level, the death of David Gaynor is not unique and not symbolic of a problem confined only to Kings. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the developed world. In the time that four children have died at Kings – one as a result of a medical condition – thirteen teenagers in the small Bay of Plenty town of Kawerau have killed themselves. Yet their plight barely rates a mention in national newspapers, whereas the deaths of the social elite hit the national psyche much harder.

A uniting feature of both tragic cliques might be alcohol and drugs, however. Medical studies have increasingly shown teenage brains are being fried by marijuana and amphetamines. Throw in the lower drinking age shepherded through by Jenny Shipley’s National Government in the late 1990s, and you have a recipe for Kids Gone Wild.

Which is exactly what we found on Facebook.

Most of the Kings College students in David Gaynor’s social network had placed privacy barriers on their Facebook pages. Most, but not all. Photos obtained from some of those open Facebook pages show senior Kings girls drinking heavily at parties at their homes.

In one photo, appearing to show a student with a large marijuana cigarette, David Gaynor himself posted a question underneath, asking if the cigarette was “dak” – slang for cannabis. In another photo, a Kings girl poses on a benchtop with what appears to be a similar cigarette nestled in her cleavage.

It’s the photos of vast amounts of alcohol being shared between a small group of students, however, that is perhaps most shocking. The sheer numbers of ready-to-drink vodka, methode champenoise, wines and beers are something to behold. The name tags on the photos reveal the parties included teens from a range of other schools, including Baradene, Diocesan and Auckland Grammar.

While no alcohol was permitted at the Kings College Ball itself, photos of a pre-ball party hosted by former Fonterra boss Craig Norgate have been placed on Facebook, showing plenty of alcohol was flowing in advance of the dance.

As one mother with a daughter at Kings told Investigate:

“It’s the ready-to-drink mixes that have glamorised alcohol. Vodka is the drink of choice. Lord knows why. But our problems [at Kings] are no worse and no better than anyone else’s.”

Maybe it’s not just the alcohol, however. Maybe part of the problem is expectations. At lower decile schools the expectations are lower. At Kings, it’s different. Parents pay $20,000 a year to send their children out to the Otahuhu campus. Alumni of the college include Crown prosecutor Simon Moore, sporting greats like former All Black Pita Alatini or Olympic gold medallist Rob Waddell, businessmen like David Richwhite or performers like singer Elizabeth Marvelly or actor Martin Csokas. Being caught high on drugs might be embarrassing at some schools, but at Kings – with its place in the social pecking order – the stakes are that much higher.

Of the four deaths since 2009, one boy died in his sleep from a medical condition, another from an alcohol overdose, and two lives ended underneath motorway bridges. When I finally catch up with headmaster Bradley Fenner to discuss David Gaynor’s passing he’s reflective.

“You move through different phases following a tragedy, everybody responds differently. There are some where the impact is greatest right at the first moment and others where it hits them much later. There’s a big burden on the staff as well, and we have counsellors available for our staff too.

“I think one of the key steps in the journey was the funeral on Wednesday…quite an uplifting occasion in many ways. And I think the words spoken by our chaplain Warner Willder and also by David’s father Brian – just speaking plainly about what had happened and it not being an answer – some hard talking for the young people present, I think that was very helpful too.”

It would be easy to assume that after four funerals Kings pupils might be getting desensitised to death, but Fenner rejects that. “There’s been no indication of that. Each of these is an individual tragedy in its own right, an individual story, and you see that clearly in the individual responses of the students.”
Fenner says it helps that Kings is a church school.

“One of the good things about being a church school is that we do have a language, we have a shared experience to talk about. We have students and families from every faith background, and a lot of families with no faith background, but I do think that through our programme of worship and spirituality that there is a respect and at least an awareness of the possibility of there being more to life than the material.

“So I think it is quite natural for our students to turn in those directions. Let me give you an example. Tuesday afternoon, the entire school – organised by the prefects – formed up on the lawn outside Marsden House, which was David Gaynor’s house, and they did the school haka to the Marsden House boys as an expression of solidarity for them.

“At the conclusion of that there was absolute silence, and then the head boy at Marsden House said his bit, then one of sacristans, our senior chapel students, led everybody in prayer. So there were all these students standing there in absolute silence, heads bowed, while he led everybody in prayer. It was a pretty special moment.”

For Fenner though, what happened to Kings student David Gaynor could have happened anywhere, and he fears for what is happening to today’s teenagers. “We’ve got to have a good look at the whole issue of drug use among our students.” He says police are already providing advice on drug detection and punishment.

“I would see this more as related to the unfortunate, misguided activities of a number of our students, the number of which we cannot determine at this point, and recognise that this is an issue that applies right across society.”

As if to reinforce the point, Fenner quotes Nigel Latta and Australia’s Michael Carr-Gregg, who have visited the school over the last year and whose message was blunt:

“They’re certainly of the view,” says Fenner, “that the pendulum over the last 10 years or so has swung too far away from the kind of directive parenting that we might have had, where our parents were under no misapprehensions about what was right for us and they told us, and laid down the rules. They think we’ve gone too far down the path of a liberal approach in managing our kids and the focus has been very much on keeping teenagers happy, and that is not always the best way and may not help them develop coping skills and resilience.”

I speak to a teacher at another Auckland high school, in a poorer part of town. She has a 16 year old daughter attending the college she teaches at, and admits that as a parent, she has to be strict.

“We haven’t had the tragedies here that Kings has had. We’ve had a couple of funerals for two girls, one was killed in a freak accident and the other when an overtaking driver rammed her car. But as for alcohol and drugs, yes, they are everywhere.

“My daughter asks if she can go to her friend’s party. ‘Will there be alcohol or drugs there?’ She tells me ‘yes’, and I tell her she simply can’t go. It just isn’t safe.”

The teacher is lucky her daughter is honest. Her daughter is lucky her mother has drawn a line in the sand. “She understands why I worry. She doesn’t like it, but she understands.”

Fenner says the lessons from Kings’ experiences in the past year or so have been put into an information booklet for parents and teachers on what signs to look for, and he sees a need to expand on that. “We’re going to send a copy of that booklet to every secondary school in the country, and make the material available to every school to use as they see fit.”

The Kings headmaster believes the best outcomes for young people occur “when school and home are working together”, singing from the same songsheet. He sees a role for schools collectively to begin trying to turn the Titanic away from the iceberg, to start edging away from liberalism in education to a firmer approach with teens.

“The only positive out of this, is that having these things on the front page of the newspaper, and having informed, quality, public debate about them is also a good thing, because I think society’s attitudes on this are changing.”

“As for this Kronic stuff that’s around now, I can’t believe that even got onto the shelves without being thoroughly tested and put through proper processes. I’m not an expert on these matters, but I firmly believe that the greater and easier the access to something, you can’t help but see more problems from it.

“Michael Carr-Gregg told us that the younger someone starts drinking, the more likely they will develop an alcohol problem. Some people point to certain cultures where the kids have grown up with a glass of wine with the meal, and they say you see more responsible drinking there, but that is not here! I would have to say, I have misgivings about any sort of liberal approach in giving alcohol to young people.”

Perhaps Fenner is right. Perhaps the reason French kids are…

Extended coverage of this story is available in the July 2011 issue, details on our Facebook page at right