As Crack Kids Enter the Classroom

By , Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D) of New York is chairman of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.

AMERICA'S schools are not ready for an approaching crisis. Thousands of children whose mothers used illegal drugs during pregnancy are entering the classroom. Teachers report a drastic increase in the number of developmentally and behaviorally disabled children. And the drug-exposed population will continue to grow over the next 10 years.The rising number of drug-exposed children in the 1990s is largely attributable to the advent of crack cocaine during the 1980s. Today, at least one out of every 10 children born in the United States has been exposed to drugs in the womb. Estimates of the total number of drug-exposed children born per year range from 375,000 to 739,000. The rate of drug abuse among pregnant women is virtually the same across all racial and socioeconomic categories. Drug abuse among adolescent girls and women of child-bearing age has not declined as some government surveys predicted. As the number of infants born to drugs increases, so will the number of drug-exposed children entering the classroom. Many veteran teachers say they are witnessing new behavioral characteristics among their students. Drug-exposed children often show normal intelligence but have problems concentrating or sitting still. They can be overwhelmed by the slightest stimulation and usually suffer language deficiencies. Without any formal training or even accurate information about drug-exposed children to help them, teachers must try, on their own, to accommodate special students' needs while educating the 30 or 40 other childr en in the classroom. Many teachers send drug-exposed children to costly special-education classes. Over the past year, for example, preschool special-education enrollments have increased by 26 percent in New York City, and by 115 percent in Los Angeles. Such programs, however, are often inappropriate for these childrens' needs. It is possible to rehabilitate drug-exposed children. These children are not a "lost generation" or a "bio-underclass," as some would suggest. They can be helped to lead normal lives. The Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control recently held hearings to discuss techniques for working with drug-exposed children. Our witnesses described pilot programs that, through counseling and individualized instruction, have enabled drug-exposed children to overcome their disabilities. By intervening early in a child's life, these special services facilitate learning and growth. Our witnesses cautioned that without care, drug-exposed children will encounter troubles later in life - probably requiring far greater welfare or law-enforcement expenditures. I propose the following actions: * Improve access to information about drug-exposed children. We can create an information clearinghouse that would collect and disseminate materials easily used by educators. This would include strategies for identifying and working with drug-exposed children. * Improve teacher training. We should encourage teachers' colleges to adequately prepare aspiring educators for drug-exposed children in the classroom. We can do this by providing seed money for universities to expand their curricula. Educators currently in the field also need training in this area. The government can develop a technical assistance package for teachers. * Improve drug-exposed childrens' access to special services. There exists a federal special-education program suiting the needs of drug-exposed children. Unfortunately, many communities cannot afford to include drug-exposed children in this program. We should grant federal dollars to needful communities so that more drug-exposed children can enter this program. Of course, any discussion about drug-exposed children must include the problem's cause: pregnant women's drug abuse. Many drug treatment programs currently exclude pregnant women for liability reasons. There are only 10,000 treatment slots for the 250,000 pregnant women who need them. We must improve pregnant women's access to treatment. We cannot wait. In September, hundreds of thousands of children began school for the first time. Many of them were drug-exposed. This is only the beginning.

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