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Principals Say Drug Education Should Begin Early

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Most elementary-school principals believe that schools should begin teaching students about drugs by the 3rd grade, and possibly as early as kindergarten, a new nationwide survey suggests.

But markedly fewer principals say that schools should begin sex education in those grades, according to a survey of 495 school principals by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. The association released its findings last Friday during the group's annual convention in Orlando, Fla.

Survey Results

According to the survey, 89 percent of the principals polled said drug education should begin by the 3rd grade, and 65 percent said they would favor starting to teach about drug-abuse prevention in kindergarten.

By comparison, a smaller majority, 52 percent of those surveyed, favored teaching 3rd graders about sex. Only 23 percent of the respondents said sex education should start in kindergarten.

The principals' views on sex education contrast with those of U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who has advocated beginning sex education as early as the 3rd grade in some schools as a means of curbing the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. (See Education Week, Oct. 29, 1986).

"The difference clearly reflects a reluctance by many principals to intrude on the family's primacy in shaping sexual values,'' said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the principals' association.

"When it comes to drugs, however, the principals close ranks,'' he said. "They obviously believe that heading off drug experimentationand addiction is too serious a matter to be left to community and parental efforts alone.''

'Average' Programs

The survey also suggests that many principals are somewhat dissatisfied with the way their schools currently teach students about drug use and sexuality.

Ten percent of the principals rated their own drug-education programs as "poor,'' according to the poll. Seventy-six percent characterized such programs as "good or average,'' and 14 percent gave their drug-education classes an "excellent'' rating.

Sixteen percent of the principals rated their sex-education programs as "poor,'' 73 percent said they were "good or average,'' and 12 percent judged them to be "excellent.''

Asked what was needed to improve their drug- and sex-education programs, the principals listed, in order: better staff training, the use of outside specialists, more funding, and community involvement.

"Many of the national reports and funding programs that have come out make the assumption that principals and teachers are truly qualified to teach these kinds of programs,'' Mr. Sava said. "That just isn't so.''

He pointed out that only 55 percent of the principals said they believed that their own staff members were sufficiently trained to conduct sex-education classes. And 63 percent said their teachers were adequately trained to teach drug-education courses

The study also found that, while nearly all the principals favored providing drug- and sex-education programs, fewer had actually implemented such programs. Eighty-eight percent of the respondents said they offer drug-prevention education; 61 percent said their schools teach children about sexuality.

Shifting Philosophy

In both areas, the vast majority of the principals said their existing programs revolve around a philosophy of enhancing the students' "self-esteem and decisionmaking abilities.'' Ninety percent of the principals said such a philosophy was incorporated in their drug programs; 73 percent said they used it in sex-education courses.

That kind of philosophical bent, Mr. Sava noted, reflects a shift in the way schools approach their drug-abuse-prevention efforts. "I think there's been an emphasis on scare tactics in the past, and principals just felt they haven't worked,'' he added.

The 495 survey responses came from principals at urban, rural, and suburban schools in every state; the District of Columbia; and from several schools run by the U.S. State Department abroad. A second NAESP survey on AIDS education in the schools is planned for next fall.

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