Drugs becoming a rarer sight in schools

For the first time, more than half of US teenagers say their schools are drug-free.

Most American high schools probably have at least one real-life version of drugged-out surfer Jeff Spicoli in their senior class. Like the lovable but invariably stoned bad boy from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," he's the one constantly crowing, "Hey bud, let's party!"

But unlike the Sean Penn character, today's high school party animals are not feeling as laid-back using the lunchroom as a drug den as they apparently did in Redondo Beach, circa 1979.

Once a happening drug marketplace with a captive audience ready to buy, the American high school is shedding its image as a place where drugs are done and drug deals get done. True, teen use of substances like Ecstasy and meth is still cause for concern, especially off school grounds and in the club scene. But in the hallways, bathrooms, and parking lots of high schools, drugs appear to be losing some of their foothold – a welcome development for administrators and teachers who have toiled to turn the tide against student drug use.

"People still do drugs, but they don't do them at school anymore," says Matt McKinney, a junior at Athens Drive High School in the west end in Raleigh, N.C.

These observations are backed up by a just-released survey that says that this year, for the first time, more than half of American teenagers say their schools are "drug free" – meaning they've seen no dealing, no stashing, no smoking. According to Columbia University's well-regarded National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse, 62 percent reported that they haven't seen drugs kept, used, or sold at school this year, up from 42 percent in 2000, and up from a low of 31 percent in 1998.

"My generation grew up watching 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High,' and today, that seems like a long ways away as far as drug use being that prevalent at school," says Mike Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

While challenges clearly remain, experts cite a variety of reasons for the apparent progress so far. Many say that the 1994 federal antidrug act helped raise national awareness of what was once considered a local problem – and those efforts may just now be bearing fruit. What's more, recent ad campaigns that exhort parents to "talk to your kids about drugs" appear to be having an effect.

But the primary reason for sobering schools seems to be that years of "getting tough" on drug dealing in schools is wearing down the black market on campus. As Mr. Carr says, it's "getting them to think that having drugs at school is a really bad idea."

The trend, experts agree, is bolstered by new security measures in schools, more drug testing, and locally produced drug-abuse-awareness campaigns, often presented as straight talk rather than admonishment.

"Everybody's scared to death of being busted," says Matt, who wears a tie to school. "These days, most kids want to go to college. But if you get caught at school," he says, there could be harsh consequences.

Those who gauge teen attitudes on drugs say that the new study is an encouraging sign.

"Hopefully, this is an indication that schools and parents are paying a lot more attention to the problem – and that kids are getting more aware," says Joseph Califano Jr., the former secretary of health, education, and welfare who conducted the survey.

That's certainly true here at Athens Drive, one of the most diverse quarters of the city. Packed with faces of all shapes and colors, the school is described by one parent as "not rich, but not poor." As with other schools in the district, security guards on bikes and other means of stepped-up enforcement have made a difference.

School officials also don't dawdle when problems crop up: Junior Ashley Jones saw that with her own eyes. In a small wood behind the bus stop, "druggies" used to convene for business, she says. But last year, officials took notice. Some kids were punished, while custodians cleared out the brushy woods.

"The people who are doing it are going to do it. They're just not doing it at school," says Ashley.

Researchers say that parents also seem to be getting the message. "I think to say that [drugs on campus] doesn't happen is an illusion," says Athens Drive mom Rhea Lucovsky. "But I talk to my daughter and her boyfriend."

Moreover, local officials have tried to clear away the cloud of pop-culture drug references with what they call "social norming": Instead of harping on the fact that there are 8 million American teens exposed to drugs at school, new ad campaigns at a growing number of colleges and high schools point out how many kids don't smoke, drink, or take illegal drugs.

"A very important point we need to make is that most kids don't use drugs," says Jennifer DeValance, a spokeswoman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy at the White House.

To be sure, experts are quick to point out that "there's no such thing as a drug-free school," in the words of University of Michigan sociologist Lloyd Johnston. In fact, his "Monitoring the Future" study shows that teen drug use has stayed relatively constant since 1997, following a sharp uptick in the early 1990s. "From what I've seen, I'm not sure we've turned the corner yet," he says.

In fact, the new Columbia study finds that more and more kids say that marijuana, specifically, is now easier to buy than beer and cigarettes. Indeed, while officials have rooted the modern-day Spicolis off campus at Athens Drive, other school districts are finding it tough going.

At Florida's North Miami Beach Senior High School, students report that the bathrooms often reek of marijuana, and some students even carry crack pipes on campus.

Freshman Richard Gomez says that half the school is on drugs. "The teachers know kids are taking drugs," but they just don't say anything, says Richard from outside the boys' locker room. "They just don't care."

One teacher also quietly confirmed drug usage on campus. "That study must not have been from Miami," says an apathetic ninth-grade teacher who asked not to be identified, "because some of my students sell drugs right from my classroom."

• Jennifer LeClaire contributed to this report from Miami.

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