Beyond 'Zero Tolerance': A Pragmatic Approach to Teen Drug Education and School Discipline

When schools choose to move "beyond zero tolerance" in handling school discipline, they stop merely reacting to student misconduct -- and can begin to address its root causes.
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The school year has begun, and along with academics and extracurricular activities, teachers and parents will grapple with ever-present concerns about teenage alcohol and other drug use -- both on and off campus.

Last year, the annual federally-sponsored Monitoring the Future survey indicated that 45 percent of students -- nationwide -- had used marijuana by the time they had graduated from high school, and nearly one-quarter had used another illegal drug. Many more (69 percent) had used alcohol. The struggle to determine what schools and families can do about it persists.

Despite more than four decades of lecture-style, abstinence-only, drug education programs -- replete with messages designed to frighten students and backed up with "zero tolerance" punishment -- the use of alcohol and marijuana is common among high school students, and most young people accept it as part of teenage social life.

So what can be done?

In his new, updated booklet, Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-Based Approach to Drug Education and School Discipline, UCLA Professor Emeritus Rodney Skager urges educators to take a critical look at prevention programs and recommends honest, science based drug education content.

In other words, no more unbelievable scare tactics. Drug education that ignores the views and intelligence -- and, let's face it, experience -- of students is bound to fail. Instead, programs should be participatory, interactional and non-didactic.

To ensure health and safety, high schools must have rules that prohibit the use of alcohol or other drugs on campus. Yet the 2011 California Student Survey found that in any 30-day period, almost 12 percent of students in both 9th and 11th grade admit to having used drugs at least once on campus -- that's one out of every eight students. Although there is variability in administrative responses, suspension or expulsion tends to be the norm.

Such zero tolerance policies do nothing for the offending student, but they do succeed in increasing the number of students who ultimately leave school permanently. According to Victor Manuel Perez, former California School Board member, "Zero tolerance policies for alcohol and other drugs have displaced many at-risk youth, particularly youth of color, from their communities, families, and educational institutions. Such policies have created a 'schools to jails pipeline'--a track steering students further away from college and toward the path to prison."

This sentiment is echoed by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, which found that "the accumulated evidence points to a clear need for change in how zero tolerance policies are applied and toward the need for a set of alternative practices... It is time to make the shifts in policy, practice, and research needed to implement policies that can keep schools safe and preserve the opportunity to learn for all students."

Instead of zero tolerance, schools should offer two complementary approaches. First, for students with drug problems, intervention, counseling through Student Assistance Programs, or referral to treatment should be available. Second, "Restorative Practice" programs, in which those who break school rules identify harms they have caused and then make amends, should replace most suspensions and expulsions.

A case in point for how alternatives can work is the innovative UpFront program, which was developed by Chuck Ries as part of a Student Assistance Program in Oakland, California. Students, most of whom had become cynical about the drug education they had received as younger teens, had requested "real" drug education. They wanted someone who would listen to them, not just lecture at them. They wanted to be active participants in the process, and to have a stake in its outcomes. Post-program evaluations were extremely encouraging, with lower drug use and high levels of engagement and school attendance.

The good news for cash-strapped schools is that a program like UpFront can be implemented within a school setting. Using the school's own personnel saves money. Additionally, the engagement of students translates into decreased truancy, thus avoiding the loss of state funding to the school. It also builds trust and positive connections between students and their school community -- all proven to improve health and educational outcomes. What's more, the use of Restorative Practices is cost-efficient: such programs pay for themselves by reducing disciplinary incidents and suspensions -- not to mention the broader, long-term, social and economic benefits of increasing students' retention and graduation rates, and improving their future job prospects and earning potential.

When schools choose to move "beyond zero tolerance" in handling school discipline, they stop merely reacting to student misconduct -- and can begin to address its root causes. As Pennsylvania middle school principal Ed Baumgartner said:

"I've had an epiphany, a metamorphosis. I used to be one of these black and white, law-and-order guys. Kids had to be held accountable, and the only way to do that was to kick them out of school -- to show the other kids that you're the boss. That doesn't work. I didn't solve problems, I just postponed them... and then somebody else had to deal with them. Restorative practices work. We now fix and solve problems."

Drug education motivated by fear and lacking in credibility weakens young people's confidence in law enforcement, parents, teachers and other adults. Whether at home or at school, we need reality-based approaches to drug education that foster open, honest dialogue about the potential risks and consequences of drug use. Teens need drug education that respects their intelligence and gives them the tools to stay safe and healthy.

School discipline policies should seek to help rather than hurt students. "Zero tolerance" should be replaced with approaches designed to keep students in school, instead of casting them out -- and adding to the vast rolls of teens who drop out of high school.

Beyond Zero Tolerance is not only pragmatic; it's the humane and sensible way to deal with the difficult issue of teenage drug use that will help to make a dent in this intractable problem.

Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD, is director emerita of the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance and author of Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs.

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