Casualties of the Drug War: The Misfiring of Drug and Alcohol Policy by Public Schools

Ernest Freeman
Poverty & Prejudice: Paradoxes of U.S. Drug Policies
June 8, 1999

When the government first regulated the use of drugs and alcohol, law enforcement agencies were more lenient towards minors in possession than they were to adults who were found with the same drug.  In today’s society, however, minors found in possession of illicit drugs and alcohol are getting the book thrown at them, because of America’s war on drugs.  This especially holds true in America’s public high schools.  Students found with these materials can receive a range of punishments from extended suspension to law enforcement intervention (mostly used on first time offenders).  These types of punishments tend to leave students with permanent scars on their records.  These scars make it almost impossible to go to a good college, get college loans, and even get well paying jobs.  The penalties given, to the person and their record, outweigh the severity of this one mistake.  Although, these punishments exist in virtually all public high schools, for the most part, they are no where to be found in private schools.  Private high schools take a much different approach to drug and alcohol policies. Their policies allow the school to deal with individual cases instead of placing all offenders into the same category, as public schools do.  This approach is the more logical one, because it gives students a second chance.  The discrepancy between the drug and alcohol policies of private and public high schools should be leveled so that public school students receive the same type of treatment that private school students receive.

          An argument can be made that first time high school drug offenders do not deserve a second chance, because they should not have had the illegal products in the first place.  First time offenders should be accountable for their actions just as everyone else is.  These types of offenders should also be the ones who receive the most punishment so they will learn not to do it again.  In addition, first time high school offenders will not want to go back to drugs once they have experienced an extensive dose of the legal system.

     The previous argument, though clever, can be countered, because first time high school offenders need more than just legal intervention to solve their drug and alcohol problems.  According to Lynda Longa, reporter for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, over half of youth drug offenders, who are processed by the legal system, repeat their offense (Longa 03B).  This shows that many high school age drug offenders do not respond positively to legal remedies for their mistakes.  If anything there is a negative correlation between legal system solutions and teenage drug use.  In this type of situation, where first time high school age offenders are involved, drug and alcohol counseling is a more viable option than law enforcement intervention.  Private high schools tend to have and use this option, where public high schools are forced to use legal remedies, which do not work on these types of offenders. 

     Although high school drug and alcohol policies vary from state to state, the basic generalization can be drawn that private high schools have a more lenient policy toward first time drug and alcohol offenders than public high schools do.  The forbearing policy that private high schools have, on drugs and alcohol, allows them to find other alternatives to solving first time offender problems than involving the police.  Private schools like to give students a second chance when it comes to first time drug offenders.  This is partially attributed to the fact that most private school students come from good family backgrounds and the parents are active in the child’s upbringing as well as their education; so if a drug or alcohol problem were to arise then the parents are there to discipline their children with the school.  Private schools’ second chance policy, however, is most attributable to the fact that private schools believe that they are trying to raise upstanding, moral, and intelligent young men, and they understand that on the road to greatness there are going to be some roadblocks (drugs and alcohol) that have to be cleared.  Those blocks should not hurt the student but help him to grow.  So the private schools develop programs for their students with these problems. According to Patrick Tobin, vice chairman of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, “A significant number of teenagers will be involved in drugs or underage drinking at some point.  Both are against the law.  It would be quite wrong though to think that everyone who has touched drugs should be scarred for life” (Scotsman 7).  Private schools and their educators understand that young people are going to make mistakes, but instead of hurting the child by involving the law, the schools use their mistakes as building blocks to achieve greatness. 

     Unlike private schools, public schools involve local law enforcement agents when drugs or alcohol are discovered.  Many public schools have a uniform policy that states that anyone caught with illicit drugs or alcohol will be turned over to the police.  This policy does not allow the school to have any discretion of its own when dealing with individual cases that might be completely different in their levels of severity.  An example of this would be one person who was a bad student and had been caught with drugs or alcohol many times in the past, and another person who was a good student and never had any previous drug problems, but they were found with drugs or alcohol.  Obviously the first person needs more discipline than the second person does.  Under the current system the second student would receive the same punishment as the first person and would be permanently scared, because the student would now have a permanent criminal record that stays with him/her for an extended period of time.  This discrepancy between private and public high schools puts the public schools’ students at an inherent disadvantage, which can cause them trouble later on in their lives.

     The discrepancy between public and private school drug policy makes policy change an important issue that needs to be dealt with by local school and government officials.  Change is primarily needed, because teen drug and alcohol abuse is becoming more frequent in public schools, showing that current policy measures are not working to deter young people from drugs.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) among state and federal funded high schools in 1998 marijuana use has increased by about 56 percent since 1991 and alcohol use has increased by about 15 percent.  The NIDA also found that 60 percent of 14 and 15 years old students at public schools have been offered illegal drugs (NIDA p.1).  These startling statistics point directly to the fact that current public school drug policy does not work.  Children continue to experiment with drugs and alcohol despite the legal penalties associated with them.  In addition to the increase in drug use, CNN News found that “The proportion of high school students who believe regular use of marijuana was harmful in 1998 had dropped by about 26 percent since 1991 to only 37 percent” (CNN News).  The current 1999 NIDA marijuana and alcohol statistics are: 49.6 percent use by 12th graders and 22 percent use by 8th graders (of marijuana), and 81.7 percent use by 12th graders and 53 percent use by 8th graders (of alcohol) (NIDA p.2).  By keeping the current drug and alcohol policy public schools are not only telling children that schools do not care if they do drugs (lack of good prevention and counseling programs/ increase in use), but they are also telling the children that the schools do not care about their personal well being (uniform policy where first time offenders are treated the same as repeat offenders).  In addition to these statistics, the current drug policy also puts public school students at an inherent disadvantage to private school students, because first time offenders, in public schools, are not getting a second chance as they do in private schools.

     Another reason why current public school drug policy needs to be changed is, because keeping high school age offenders tied up in the legal system cost taxpayers too much money.  Statistics are showing that more and more tax dollars are going to criminal juvenile drug abuse cases.  According to Carl Rowen, reporter for The Denver Post, American taxpayers spend on average 20,000 dollars a year to keep each individual juvenile drug offender locked up for possessing as little as two ounces of marijuana.  This cost is well beyond anything taxpayers give to keep a single child in a public school.  Youthful drug offenders, sent by public schools into the court system, cost taxpayers 2,000 dollars a day in court fees and costs per child.  In California taxpayers pay 51,000 dollars a year to individual prison guards to watch the juvenile drug offenders while teachers earn on average only 43,000 dollars (Rowen K-03).  Each statistic points back to public school drug policy, because every time the police and court system has to get involved in the situation it costs taxpayers more money.  What makes these statistics even more disturbing is the fact that a majority of the money spent on juvenile drug offenders can be avoided if public schools would only change their policy to a more focused case by case policy.  In addition to the money spent on juvenile drug offenders, taxpayers are also spending immense amounts of money on drug prevention programs that are proven not to work.  According to Ralph Franmolino, reporter for The Los Angeles Times, “Drug and alcohol prevention programs cost 566 million dollars a year to keep in public schools” (Franmolino p.3 Metro).  This is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on prevention programs that for the most part do not work.  The programs have not curbed or even slowed down drug and alcohol use among teenagers.  Instead of spending all this unneeded money on juvenile offenders and prevention programs, public schools need to change their policy to a more moderate one that allows for discretion.

     If public schools look to change their drug and alcohol policy they should follow the lead set by private schools.  Private school policy on drug and alcohol use is a policy that does not look good in theory, but works in practice; where as public schools policy looks good in theory but has been proven not to work in practice.  Private school policy takes the approach that first time drug/alcohol offenders can be reformed if you reach them in time.  The majority of private schools offer counseling and other forms of treatment to solve the student’s drug or alcohol problem.  What makes private school drug and alcohol policy so successful, however, is that the schools get the parents involved in the student’s rehabilitation.  They focus on the fact that it takes an entire community to help keep a student on the right path, so the private schools involve everyone.  An example of how private schools are winning their war against drugs and alcohol is the St. John Baptist Parish private school system.  The Parish has eleven campuses located in the state of New York.  Five years ago the Parish implemented a new system into their school system in order to deal with drug and alcohol problems that had been increasing in years past.  They created a program where first time drug and alcohol offenders were put into counseling programs twice a week for a determined amount of time, and the students also had to submit to random drug testing.  According to statistics compiled recently, by the St. John Baptist Parish, the private school system has witnessed a 74 percent drop in drug related offenses and a 100 percent drop in alcohol related offenses over the past five years.  The first year the policy was put into place, the 95-96 school year, 31 students were found with or under the influence of drugs.  The next year, 96-97, only 16 students were found with illicit substances, and during the 97-98 school year only 8 students were found with drugs (Times-Picayune p.A1).  This is a dramatic improvement, which was totally accomplished without any law enforcement intervention.  In addition, 20 students were written up for alcohol use or possession during the 95-96 school year.  The total dropped to 7 students in 96-97, and the 97-98 total was 0 (Times-Picayune p.A1).  This was also done without any sort of police interference.  These facts and statistics show that private schools’ policies are working and if public schools would implement the same types of policies than they could cut down on tax dollars being spent on juvenile offenders, and they can give promising students, who make a mistake, a second chance.

     Now that it has been determined that policy change is necessary, the final logical step is to create a new policy.  This policy should focus on first time offenders only, because repeat offenders are just abusing the law.  The policy change is about helping students who make a mistake not giving them a way around the law.  The new policy should focus on three main things counseling, random drug test/searches, and parent intervention/supervision.  First, counseling is extremely important when dealing with students who have drug or alcohol problems.  The counseling should not just be for a couple of weeks, but it should be for an extended period of time, such as half a school year.  This amount of time is necessary so students will not stray back to the wrong path of drugs and alcohol.  The counseling should discuss the long-term physical dangers of repeated use of drugs, but more importantly it should discuss the affects that drugs can have on future career and college goals, because if students understand that drugs and alcohol can take away from their future earnings potential then they might stay away from them.  Second, random drug test and searches should be mandatory for first time offenders.  Tests should take place for at least a year after the original infraction and searches should last for about three months.  Tests and searches are needed to keep the student honest in his commitment to stay away from drugs and alcohol.  These tests and searches also give school officials a reliable way to know that a student has stopped using or possessing drugs or alcohol.  Third, parental intervention and supervision is the most important aspect to keeping a student drug offender on the right track.  The parents in this situation should take an active part in their student’s rehabilitation and they should shoulder some of the responsibility if the student fails.  They should have to take responsibility, because it is their duty to care for and watch what their children are doing so that their children will have no way of regressing into their old ways.  Parents should have to meet with school administrators and teachers on a monthly basis to discuss how they are making sure that their children are staying away from drugs or alcohol.  With these three steps public high schools can drastically improve their current policy and help to give good students a second chance.

     As America moves into the 21st century, it is important to remember that the children are our future.  Our nation has to mold them into upstanding citizens who will want to make a positive contribution to the world.  During this process, however, there are going to be hardships and hindrances that our children must over come in order to complete their journey.  It is our civic duty to not let these children make their journey by themselves.  When they stumble and fall we should be there to pick them up.  Just as private schools make an effort to give students a second chance.  We too should be there to help students get a fresh start.  It has been established that public school policy needs change.  It has also been established that public school policy needs to be changed for many reasons, most notably to give their students the same opportunities as private schools.  With these thoughts in mind, I make a plea to public schools across the nation to give their students a helping hand by changing their current drug and alcohol policies to a more case by case focused policy that gives schools the power to distinguish between bad students who make bad decisions repeatedly and good students who make a bad decision infrequently.

























CNN News Poll.  Feb. 19-21, 1999

Franmolino, Ralph.  “Drug prevention programs do not work.” 

     The Los Angeles Times.  May 26, 1998.  P. 3.

Little, Tom.  “Tolerance-Plea.”  The Scotsman.  Jan. 22, 1999.

     p. 10.

Longa, Lynda.  “Schools fight alcohol, drugs.”  The Atlanta

     Journal and Constitution.  Dec. 1, 1998.  p. 03B.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Jan. 5, 1999.  P. 1-2.

Rowen, Carl.  “Prison-heavy and schools-light.”  The Denver

     Post.  March 14, 1999.  P. K-03.

Warren, Bob.  “Student Problems Drop in St. John.”  The Times-

     Picayune.  April 7, 1999.  P. A1.     







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