Editorial: San Jose Mercury News, November 13, 1995

By Joanne Jacobs-Editorial Staff

California’s multimillion dollar drug education program isn’t stopping kids from trying drugs. But its underlying message -all substance use is abuse-erodes the credibility of teachers, and alienates students most at risk of serious drug abuse. So says a three-year, 5000 student study conducted for the State Department of Education, which has decided not to publish the results.

It’s a disturbing conclusion, but not surprising. Most research shows that school drug prevention programs don’t prevent drug use, through they may affect knowledge, attitudes and refusal skills in the short term. Despite all the just-say-no assemblies and Red Ribbon Weeks and police officers in the classroom, more teenagers are using drugs.

Something’s not working. Wouldn’t it make sense to take a fresh, honest look at what we’re doing?

Following federal guidelines, California’s drug education programs preach a strict “no use” message to students. They hear the message, says the study by Joel H. Brown, of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, and Marianne D’Emidio-Caston of UC-Santa Barbara. But the message doesn’t fit students’ experience of the world., in which they see differences in the way different people use drugs and alcohol. So they reject the message -and sometimes reject the messenger as well.

In elementary school, only 10 percent of students reject anti-drug programs, says Brown. That rose to 30 percent in the middle school. By high school, 90 percent of students responded to anti-drug programs with “angry apathy.” “Oh they lie to you so that you don’t do the drugs! They think your’re dumb!” said a middle school student in a focus group interview.

A high school student said his mother sometimes drinks at parties: “On Mothers’ Day she totally had a good time, but she didn’t drive home. She felt sick in the morning, but she had a good time and that’s fine.” At school though, “They teach us that everything is bad! It’s just flat out bad!”
For students who are doing well, “the loss of credible authority in the form of teachers and police officers is not alienating,” the study says. These students believe their well-being is motivating the message, even if they don’t believe what they’re told. “At-risk” students, already on the edge of the school community, are pushed farther away. “They are not in this for helping you,” said one. “They are in for getting rid of the bad kids, and jus having all good kids in school.”

Virtually all knew that students caught with drugs at school would be punished with detention, suspension, or expulsion. Few knew of any help available for drug users. The state’s program, Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Education, or DATE, is supposed to target high risk youth, but the study found little individualized help. “At risk” and “thriving” students sat through the same programs. “Counseling is offered the least; and it’s what’s needed the most,” says Caston. “But it’s the most expensive service, because it can’t be delivered en masse.”

The Department of Education won’t publish the $3 million survey. Consultant Jana Slater says it’s “irrelevant” because federal guidelines for drug education have been revised.”Nothing significant has changed,” Brown responds. “I haven’t seen any change,” Jordan Horowitz, a Southwest Regional Laboratory analyst who favorably reviewed the study for DOE. Getting government agencies to accept research “has been an ongoing problem from the start. People believe very strongly in doing the types of things that have been shown not to work.”

The National Institute of Justice commissioned a “meta-analysis” of the very popular, very expensive DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which brings police officers into schools. The study show DARE doesn’t prevent drug use. The Institute of Justice refused to publish it. DARE defenders now say the program is being revised, so the results are irrelevant. Federal police focused on risk factors, trying to fix students’ deficiencies so they won’t want to use drugs. But reducing risks doesn’t reduce drug use says Brown and Caston. And experimenting with risky things is normal for adolescents. Most come through without an addiction, a conviction or a baby. Some get in serious trouble.

Because of the absolutist “no-use” dictate, says Brown, “there’s no opportunity to find out if harm reduction can be successful.” Harm reduction tries to help students make responsible choices, acknowledging that not everybody will choose total abstinence. The “designated driver” is a harm-reduction idea. So is giving teenagers access to condoms, which is, of course, wildly controversial.

“How do we advocate careful use of illegal substances?” asks Slater, adding that alcohol is not legal for minors. But most teenagers try drugs and alcohol. In a state survey, nearly half of seniors admitted trying an illegal drug; nearly 90 percent said they used alcohol. Telling them that all substance use leads to the gutter will not be persuasive. Scare tactics don’t work, agrees L.D. Hirschklau, the Drug Alcohol and Tobacco Education coordinator the Los Gatos-Saratoga High School District. “Do you remember when they told us marijuana would make us crazy?”

Kids will listen to peers or to someone a few years older who’s “been there or been on the borderline,” she says. Horowitz agrees: “Students want to hear from people who’ve been through it. But the federal government won’t fund that kind of program. They don’t want kids to think you can make it through.” Illicit drug use by high school students has been increasing, according to a federally sponsored survey. In 1992, 35 percent of 12th graders had used illegal drugs in the previous year; that’s up 45 percent; Marijuana use among eighth-graders had doubled. Responds Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala: We need to do more of the same, only more vigorously.


Joanne Jacobs is a member of the Mercury News editorial board. Her column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. You may reach her at 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose CA, 95190, by fax at 408.271.3793, or post your views in her Mercury Center message folder. Keyword: MC Talk, then pick Talk to the Mercury News and scroll down to her name.

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