Are Kids Learning to 'Just Say No'?
Proven drug programs exist, but many schools still rely on ineffective, short-term solutions
BOSTON — When residents of Lynn, Mass., decided to tackle the scourge of drugs in their schools, they left no stone unturned.
They consulted drug-education experts, evaluated sample teaching materials, and finally settled on Here's Looking at You 2000, a nationally known drug-prevention curriculum.
But the effort Lynn put into finding an effective antidrug program for its schools is unusual. Nine years after the federal government began requiring school districts to teach drug prevention, schools are still more likely to put together short-term antidrug classes than choose from among the variety of tested programs available to them.
The result is paradoxical: While proven teaching methods exist to help dramatically reduce drug use among teens, high- schoolers nationwide are using drugs at the highest level since 1987. Researchers say this is in part because quality programs are not included in most schools' drug-prevention curricula.
"There's a real gap between the programs that exist and getting them into the schools," says Kris Bosworth, director of the Center for Adolescent Studies and professor at Indiana University in Bloomington.
More than 70 percent of American students do not learn drug prevention from the top-ranked curricula, she says. "It's out there, but the exposure just hasn't been strong enough."
Experts acknowledge that school programs alone will not end teen drug use. An antidrug commitment by the community and parental involvement are also key to keeping kids drug-free. In fact, a recent survey showed that teens whose parents spoke to them about not using drugs were 29 percent more likely to abstain than those whose parents did not.
But school antidrug programs - if comprehensive and effective - can be a powerful tool in the war on teen drug use, researchers say.
In general, the best antidrug courses are those that provoke students to think about their futures and the consequences that taking drugs could have on them, says Olive O'Donnell, education director at National Family Partnership, an antidrug parent organization in St. Louis. "Kids that age don't think beyond right now," she says.
Programs like Here's Looking at You 2000 get good results because they help kids focus on future consequences, according to one new study. The curriculum offers materials and lesson plans for kindergarten through Grade 12, is strong in teaching skills needed to ward off peer pressure and refuse drugs, and includes useful activities and role-playing scenarios.
"It's excellent," says Paula Fee, coordinator of drug prevention for the Lynn school district. "It teaches a whole process of decisionmaking and taking responsibility for your actions. It's more than 'Just say no.' "
Though the program has not been in place long enough for any students to have completed courses from kindergarten through 12th grade, school administrators say 50 percent of their high-schoolers never touch drugs - an improvement over a decade ago, when prevention classes were introduced.
Teenage Health Teaching Modules, based in Newton, Mass., also earns high marks in the report "Making the Grade: A Guide to School Drug Prevention Programs," which was released this month.
Conducted by Drug Strategies, a private, nonprofit organization that promotes effective drug-fighting approaches, the study evaluated 47 school drug-prevention programs and gave top grades to programs that employed interactive teaching techniques and were easy for teachers to use. It also looked at how appropriate lessons were for their targeted grade level.
The Teenage Health Teaching Modules curriculum was praised for the quality of teacher training it provides, its strong refusal-skills lessons, and for the personal and social skills it relays. "We were one of the first to take a comprehensive health approach on something other than a topic-by-topic basis and in a non-textbook fashion," says Lynn Watkins, THTM spokeswoman.
The host of research that has grown up around drug prevention since the late 1970s also points to what is ineffective - sometimes even detrimental - in teaching students to stay away from drugs.
Avoid scare tactics
Scare tactics don't work, educators say, because kids are smart. If a teachers or parents exaggerate the consequences of drug use, they lose their credibility. Testimonials, still popular in many communities, are shown to be an effective intervention tool but not a good preventive method. Often, recovering addicts visiting the classroom send the message that kids can do drugs and then stop and still be successful.
Researchers say that the popular D.A.R.E. program - taught in elementary, middle, and high schools by local police officers - relies too much on traditional lecture-style classes and not enough on skills building.
D.A.R.E. spokeswoman Patricia Johnson counters that D.A.R.E. reaches 8,000 communities at no cost to the schools. It is also the only program that brings police officers into the classroom, which enables students to see the police in a nonthreatening light.
"Teachers and principals have basically said that officers with street knowledge who understand the kinds of problems that are out there are really more effective than [the school officials] could be," Ms. Johnson says.
Drug educators are now focusing on closing the gap between what is known and what is being passed on to students. That, they say, may require more grant money from the federal government, more training for teachers, and more creativity.
"Just teaching kids about the harms of drugs is not enough," says Doug Hall, vice president of the National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE).
Teens can, for example, convey an antidrug message to younger students, and they can pitch in with community service projects. "We need to view youths as resources as opposed to recipients," Mr. Hall says.