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Should Schools Get Rid of Zero-Tolerance Drug Policy?

When we are younger, we tend to make a lot of mistakes and learn painful lessons from our experiences. We are faced with all kinds of decisions that can lead to promising futures, or expose us to a harder side of life, and drug use and alcohol abuse is a common issue among young people. Of course teenagers almost instinctively want to do the opposite of whatever an authority figure tells them. So it is no surprise that a new study suggests that any zero-tolerance drug policies in schools only make drug use more rampant.

The study was recently published this past week in the American Journal of Public Health. Researchers in the study analyzed data from 7th and 9th graders from the International Youth Development Survey, using students in Washington State and Victoria, Australia and the findings raise an important question; Is there a better option?

Washington’s Strict Policy

The biggest difference between the data from the 2 schools used in the comparison was that Washington schools generally took a zero-tolerance approach with punitive measures including:

  • Suspension
  • Expulsion

Washington kids caught with drugs were 50% more likely to be expelled completely.

  • Involving law enforcement

Washington schools were also twice as likely to have police involved than Australian schools.

In contrast the schools from Victoria, Australia took an approach that was both largely accepted and less extreme. The corrective measures they used for their policy involved a simpler approach, like referring the student to a counselor instead of the police.

Cross-referencing the data brought the authors of this recent study to write in the publication that:

“students attending schools with suspension policies for illicit drug use were 1.6 times more likely than their peers at schools without such policies to use marijuana in the next year.”

So they are telling us that the stricter policies designed to keep students from using drugs are actually back-firing from a statistics stand-point.

Suspensions vs Interventions

The information didn’t just come from teens that had already been suspended for using drugs, but suspensions were also associated with a 60% increase in the odds of drug use in school, even for those who weren’t suspended prior to the study. The figures applied to the entire student body, so it wasn’t that they were already asking kids with a history of breaking the rules set by the school.

Richard Catalano, who co-wrote the study made a statement concerning school suspensions for drug use, saying that this kind of action had unintended negative results for the students who were suspended. So not only are they suggesting that this kind of zero-tolerance policy doesn’t just have a reverse affect on drug use, but it created other issues such as: Disengagement from school

  • Delinquency
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol and increased drug use

However, the study did suggest that student-teacher interactions related to the consequences of drug use were more productive and effective, with students reporting they would be 50% less likely to use marijuana in the future. It seems according to this information that students respond better to a direct intervention, instead of punishment. Not too surprising, since it has been said countless times in relation to the drug policy on a national scale that drug and alcohol treatment would better benefit nonviolent drug offenders than jail or prison.

Pointing Out the Problems

The problems with the policies some schools are trying to enforce may seem a little more obvious than others, but opinions do vary on whether these tactics are justified or just obnoxious.

Zero-tolerance policies in U.S. schools recently started to cause some waves. Like the story of an 11-year-old sixth-grader in the gifted-and-talented program at Bedford Middle School in Bedford, Virginia who actually received a one-year suspension for a leaf found in his backpack. The young man was evaluated by a psychiatrist for substance abuse problems, and charged with marijuana possession in juvenile court. According to his mother he has reportedly been suffering from panic attacks and depression since the incident.

So why are people upset? Because the leaf tested negative for marijuana 3 separate times! While the charges the court brought were dropped, he was still placed in a different school under strict probation, because the schools policy includes punishment for ‘imitation’ drugs. While there is some sense to that given the rise in popularity of synthetic drugs, this seems like an extreme case.

In the past we have talked about how some schools were implementing and enforcing school drug testing policies. These programs reportedly haven’t inspired much improvement either, with numbers like only 8 out of 750 students testing positive for drugs in 3 separate schools. There was at one point some uproar about this kind of program too, as parents felt this was rather invasive and inappropriate.

So what is the better strategy? Some still support mandatory drug testing in schools and firm punishments for violators, while others believe it would be more effective to talk to teens about the dangers of drug abuse and work toward discovering the root cause of the drug use, and to work together to find a solution.

While school systems have different strategies for trying to eliminate drug use and under aged drinking from the classroom, there is a world of individuals out there who specialize in helping those in need of treatment. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse of addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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