Time to Take a Stand Against Outdated Drug Education

Recently, the Drug Policy Alliance held a back-to-school teleseminar called "What Parents Need to Know About Drug Use and Drug Education." As an educator who regularly works with adolescents in school, juvenile detention, and community settings I was eager to learn some new practices to better engage young people around the topic of drug use.

It turns out that effective drug education is just good youth development practice. The principles that practitioners have utilized to engage young people in healthy decision making are the very same methods that are necessary for high school students to understand the consequences of drug use and apply their knowledge to make informed decisions.

Open, non-judgmental, interactive dialogue creates the kind of space for students to test out their assumptions and receive accurate feedback on the realities of drug use and abuse. Furthermore, when students violate school drug policies rather than further alienating them from the school community they learn to understand the consequences of their actions.

"Restorative practices are beneficial in the school environment because essentially they allow educators to respond like educators," explains Ted Wachtel, founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices. "If we assume that young people are going to make bad choices, school ought to be one of the places that allows them to learn from their experience."

Chucks Ries, founder of the Oakland-based Upfront Program creates an open voluntary space for students to convene and talk about the issues that are important to them.

"One of things we find from talking to students is they say they are more than willing to talk about the issues that they face if they have a space where they feel safe," Ries says.

Zero Tolerance policies that focus on suspension and expulsion don't make students feel safe. Upfront's open engagement model is student centered with each group collaboratively organized with the students. While most members of the group will not require referrals for treatment those who do can work with Chuck and his staff to identify a supportive course of action.

Educators must take a stand against zero tolerance policies that penalize and alienate young people in schools. The consequences if we don't can be devastating. Zero tolerance approach to drug abuse invites the drug war into our classrooms and allows law enforcement to disappear our young people.

Catherine and Doug Snodgrass' autistic son was the target of an undercover drug sting on his school campus.

Their son was the target of an undercover agent known amongst students as Deputy Dan who pressured the Snodgrass' son into bringing him marijuana. The Snodgrass' had no idea that their son had been arrested and interrogated without a lawyer until he didn't come home from school later that afternoon.

Similar stories abound across the country as schools open their doors to drug enforcement agencies and allow undercover agents to sit in their classrooms. But stories like the Snodgrass' reinforce the notion that the real menace on high school campuses are law enforcement agents who use peer pressure, and manipulation to ensnare young people who otherwise are not a threat to themselves or anyone else.

DPA's publication Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality Based Approach to Drug Education and School Discipline by Rodney Skager, PhD is a practical resource for educators seeking an alternative to the outdated deficit based models of drug education.

It's vital that we change our approach. If we don't the consequences for our youth are way too high.

Piper Anderson is director of Education at Young Audiences New York, one the leading providers of Arts Education in the country. She is also a faculty member at the NYU Gallatin school.