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Keeping Kids Off Drugs: Pragmatism vs. Zero Tolerance

The emotionally charged issue of keeping teenagers off drugs has prompted a variety of programs and policies. The problem is that we don’t know whether they work.

For more than 20 years we have carried on a huge experiment on our teenagers. Beginning in the early 1980s with Nancy Reagan’s simplistic “just say no” mantra, we have tried persuasion, encouragement and scare tactics. We started by subjecting our kids to school-based prevention programs (such as DARE), and provocative (if ridiculous) commercials (such as the egg in the frying pan).

Obviously, our teenagers did not stop using drugs. In fact, year after year, government studies have indicated that by the time they graduate from high school, half of American teenagers will have admitted trying an illegal drug and 8 of 10 will have used alcohol.

Frustrated by our inability to get them to stop using drugs, we added threats and punishment to our repertoire. To show we meant business we instituted “zero tolerance” policies that included invasive and offensive procedures such as drug testing, sniffing dogs and locker searches. When caught, even for the silliest offense (such as the Maine high school student who brought Tylenol to school to alleviate menstrual cramps), students have been stigmatized, barred from extracurricular activities or expelled from school.

As the mother of a teenager and a young adult, I wish we’d done the research before instituting these draconian policies.

In April the surprising results from the largest national survey of student drug testing appeared in the American School Health Association’s well- respected Journal of School Health. For educators and others who thought drug testing would be the panacea that could deter their students’ substance use, and certainly for the ever-expanding, multibillion dollar drug testing industry, the news was crushing.

The study found that drug testing, (costing from $10 to $70 per student), while humiliating and alienating them in the process, does nothing to deter drug use. In school districts that tested students for drugs, 37 percent had used marijuana during the past year, and 21 percent had used “hard” drugs. In comparable schools that did not test for drugs, 36 percent of students had used marijuana and 19 percent had used harder drugs — a wash at best.

Now that the results are in, I’m hopeful the National School Boards Association will retreat from its pro-drug testing posture. And just for the record, I hope the U.S. Supreme Court justices, who ruled in a 2002 case that it was constitutional (and clearly stated that they believed it effective) to test students wanting to participate in the choir, the chess club and any other extra-curricular activities, will find a way to reverse their misbegotten decision.

Whereas policymakers may not be looking critically for evidence before making decisions, the good news is that real parents dealing with real teenagers in the real world seem to be paying attention. Recent news from the California Parent-Teacher Association suggests that parents fed up with zero tolerance “horror stories” will lead the way in making pragmatic, science-based decisions.

After deciding last year to partner with the Safety First project of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates honest drug education and an end to counterproductive scare tactics, in May the mom-and-apple-pie institution went even further.

When California PTA Vice President for Community Concerns, Julie Bauer, reviewed research findings, including those from the comprehensive National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, she learned that school connectedness has a direct relationship to lowered health risk behaviors, such as drug use.

At the annual PTA convention held in early May, she did something about what she had learned. Noting that “suspension or expulsion of students that use alcohol and drugs, without behavioral intervention, mentoring or rehabilitative referral, is ineffective and unsuccessful in curtailing substance abuse among students,” she introduced a resolution, urging the California state PTA to “support in-school suspension, after school interventions, positive behavior mentoring, student assistance and other programs that offer counseling and education as preventive disciplinary response to student drug abuse.”

In other words, rather than throwing students out of school for making bad decisions, let’s offer help, keep them busy, locate constructive punishment for rule-breaking within the school context, and try to increase their connection to teachers, administrators and other students.

Though there was much discussion and some dissention, in a show of common sense, pragmatism, and courage, voting members of the PTA overwhelmingly approved the “Alternatives to Zero Tolerance” resolution.

With parents taking the lead, we hope that high level educators (and Supreme Court justices) will follow with evidence-based policies, and stop using our teenagers as guinea pigs.

Posted by A. Shapiro
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