By Claire Teck
Responsibility to alert kids to drug and STI risks
Teaching about safe sex in schools is an often-debated part of the public effort to tackle the spread of sexually transmitted infections and the social problem of teen pregnancies. Drugs are also a potentially deadly teen health risk, and one that is inseparable from the discussion of sexual health risks. The mandate to inform teens about the risks of unsafe sex has to accompany a mandate to inform teens about the risks of drugs.
Going beyond the traditional “zero tolerance” approach to student drug use
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the traditional “zero tolerance” policy which threatens expulsion or even arrest for alcohol or drug use is simply ineffective. The rationale for the traditional policy comes from a belief that severe punishments successfully deter teens from alcohol and drug use. Their view contradicts national surveys, which demonstrate a continued problem of teen drug use and a worrying lack of effective action taken against it in schools.
The Drug Policy Alliance instead promotes comprehensive drug education to confront drug use among students, as can be found in the DPA publication Beyond Zero Tolerance:
Beyond Zero Tolerance advocates honest, interactive drug education programs to assist students confronting drug use, and those exhibiting patterns of substance misuse and addiction. The approach replaces punitive measures with restorative practices, enabling students to acknowledge the harms they have caused, guide them in making amends, be re-accepted into the school community, and – most importantly – stay in school.
Communication is vital
Providing advice to parents, Advocates for Youth encourages “positive communication” at home as “essential” for children to responsibly transition to adulthood. This advice is just as relevant for education aimed at preventing children from turning to drugs in future, as the same reasoning for parents communicating with their children is applicable to education. Rather than threatening penalties, engaging teens and informing them about the health threats of drugs is most likely to result in a commitment by them to avoid drugs.
Similarly, schools operating a zero tolerance policy towards drug use rather than serving a purely educational role to deter students from using drugs could inadvertently be fostering a culture in which children are uncontrollable and use drugs as a result of ignorance in a system that is more interested in punishing them than arming them with information.
While the classroom must have an effective drug education program, Advocates for Youth mainly puts the responsibility for warning children about drugs on parents:
Adolescents who don’t have good communication with their families or don’t feel supported by their parents are more likely to have problems in school, use drugs and alcohol, and have trouble with the law. Parental hostility can block family problem-solving and negatively affect parent-adolescent relationships. Self-restraint is tied to interested and supportive parents, while uncontrolled behavior is associated with harsh parental discipline. Boys can turn to alcohol or drugs, both strongly associated with early sexual activity; girls may become depressed and more sexually active.
Parents are the best educators of children. Young people also say that parents are their preferred source of information, especially on issues of sexuality, but school, friends, television, film, videos, music books and magazines all compete for attention.
With this in mind, we can see the urgency for interest in drug issues to be galvanized in the classroom, so that children have the support of their teachers and peers in understanding and evaluating what drugs represent. Armed with this information early, they will be able to make a responsible decision if and when they are faced with a social setting that may coax them into using drugs.
The danger of needle-sharing: where STI and drug risks are directly linked
With the risk of youths being affected by STIs largely necessitating the teaching of safe sex in schools, there is just as much reason to teach about the danger of needle-sharing in schools, due to the direct threat of STIs from needle-sharing as well as unsafe sex. Because this automatically leads into the discussion on drugs, discussion of drugs in the classroom is inseparable from other discussion aimed at safeguarding teens against the main health threats to them. In view of the dangers of needle-sharing, where drugs and STIs meet, it is clear that drugs have to be considered as a deadly teen health risk requiring the same level of intervention as STIs, and such intervention should take place at the same time.
Information about safe sex and avoiding drugs should ideally be supplied to the same age group. Discussion of drugs should not just include warnings about needle-sharing at this stage, but a full discussion of the medical and social risks of drugs and vigilant educational steps designed to deter young children from growing up into drug users.
When is it too early to talk about drugs in the classroom?
A case could be made that it is never too early to talk about drugs in the classroom. However, schools can use the discretion given to them to determine when and how to proceed with teen drug (and sex) education. A smart program would match its level of resources and time to the level of drug and sex related problems in the school’s area or the areas where the attending students live. Absent this option, education on drugs should be adapted to the national average, and this intervention should take place prior to students reaching the youngest age at which illicit drug use has been detected according to national data.