Anti-Drug Efforts Need Resources, Those in the Trenches Advise ‘Czar’

By Ellen Flax — March 01, 1989 8 min read
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When William J. Bennett goes before the Senate this week to be confirmed as the first “drug czar,” school officials and drug-education experts will be among those listening most carefully to his testimony.

Few doubt the former U.S. Secretary of Education’s intention to make good on President Bush’s mandate to make education a central part of the federal fight against illegal drugs. But many question his ability--or desire--to allocate the funds that many see as necessary to carry out this mission.

To make schools an essential part of the anti-drug campaign, they say, Mr. Bennett will have to match his rhetoric with funds and plans to solve a host of problems that hamper their ability to deliver effective drug-education programs.

These problems include, educators say, the increasingly drug-infested, violent, and chaotic home environments of many of their students. Equally important, they say, are the morally ambiguous and frequently inconsistent messages about drug use promoted by the media and society in general.

At the same time, these experts say, drug-education programs should not be seen as a panacea for the shortcomings of other drug-prevention efforts. Despite an upswing of hundreds of millions in federal, state, and local funding into the field, many school-based programs remain modest in scale, reaching the majority of students, at most, an hour or so a week.

They also stress that little will be accomplished if communities and the private sector are not involved in drug-education programs.

“Schools could obviously do a lot more if they had the resources,” said Sandra Feldman, president of the United Federation of Teachers. ''I would say to Bill Bennett: Put a little money where your mouth is, because you are not going to get by with rhetoric.”

“We will save our fair share of kids, no question about it,” she continued. “But the schools have to be a partner in a total effort.”

Mr. Bennett’s Post

According to the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, more than 70 million Americans have used illegal drugs. It estimates that in 1987 Americans spent $140 billion on illegal drugs. Over 60,000 tons of drugs will enter the country this year, law-enforcement officials say, only 5 percent of which will be interdicted.

Mr. Bennett’s new position--director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy--was established by the Congress late last year as part of an omnibus drug bill that earmarked $350 million for drug-education efforts.

As part of his duty to oversee all federal anti-drug efforts, Mr. Bennett will be required to come up with a strategy to fight drugs within six months of his confirmation, and to then carry out the plan. He is also required to serve with the Secretary of Education as head the National Commission on Drug-Free Schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 2, 1988.)

Despite his potentially wide-reaching power, Mr. Bennett will be limited in his activities by the constraints imposed by President Bush’s proposed budget and a Congress that is concerned about a looming federal deficit.

In Mr. Bush’s budget, an additional $25 million is slated for school-based drug-education programs as part of a $1-billion plan to “escalate the war on drugs.” But because the President did not specify which programs he wished to cut in order to fund these and other proposed initiatives, increased funding for many programs, say observers, could be uncertain.

At the same time, Mr. Bennett long has been a supporter of drug-free schools. In “Schools Without Drugs,” a booklet released by the department in 1986, schools are encouraged to work with parents, communities, and their students to develop strict policies that discourage drug use. They are advised to devise and consistently enforce anti-drug guidelines and to develop comprehensive K-12 drug-education programs.

Last year, Mr. Bennett also garnered headlines when he suggested that the Pentagon should play a role in federal drug-interdiction efforts.

But despite the former Secretary’s rhetorical support for these efforts, the Education Department recommended a $100-million decrease in drug-education funding for 1988, when the Administration proposed cutting the overall education budget by $3 billion. For 1989, however, the department requested the full $250 million alloted by the Congress for the drug-education effort.

‘Blame Education’

Although Mr. Bennett has remained uncharacteristically quiet about his priorities for his new post, most educators interviewed last week said they supported more federal aid for a troika of anti-drug iniatives: treatment, prevention, and law-enforcement efforts.

Treatment and prevention, however, were seen as the more achievable goals.

“The law-enforcement people, if they tell you the truth, will say that they have lost the war in interdiction,” said Rose J. Gordon, a coordinator of substance-abuse programs for half of Chicago’s local elementary-school districts. “Education is our last hope.”

Ms. Gordon said that schools, by default, have become the most effective place to teach children about drugs.

“We feed these kids breakfast, we keep these kids in school all day, I’ve even done a funeral,” she said. “For many youngsters, this is the only warm, structured place they have.”

She and others warned, however, that their efforts should not be seen as the final word on drug prevention.

“We can blame education for everything,” said Roy A. Allen Jr., director of health, physical education, and safety for the Detroit school system. “Kids get pregnant, they say they have to be educated. We just can’t point everything to education.”

Many proponents of an increased emphasis on drug education, experts say, are unaware of its limitations. One of the greatest problems, said a report released in late 1987 by the U.S. General Accounting Office, is that most of the programs being used by schools have not been evaluated for their effectiveness.

This includes, the report stated, the “Just Say No” campaign, which was championed by former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Many of the programs have been modeled after successful anti-smoking campaigns. However, it is unclear, say experts, if such approaches would also be effective for other substances.

Problems of Money, Targeting

And although a seemingly sizable sum of federal money is being spent on drug education, the evidence suggests that most programs are modestly funded. In Colorado, for instance, $800,000 in federal money is used to fund 70 projects. In Chicago, meanwhile, federal grants come to $2.94 for each child.

The effects of drug education may also be limited, educators say, because those most in need of help are frequently dropouts or truants--and have become abusers or dealers.

Little money is specifically targeted for this group, they say, and schools have neither embarked on outreach programs for these youths nor determined what sort of programs would be most effective.

“You can’t reach those people through drug education,” said Lee I. Dogoloff, executive director of the American Council for Drug Education. “We certainly need to find better ways of reaching these people, but it certainly won’t be through schools.”

And because most of the money sent to states must be distributed to districts on a per-pupil formula, some state officials say they are unable to target the money to districts that may have greater needs.

‘Liberal Rubbish’

Even for those students who have not become users or dealers, the educators say, the cultural values of some areas, especially those in drug-infected inner-city neighborhoods, are working against school programs.

“If a child is in drug education and goes out and sees that his uncle is making it dealing drugs, and that his brother is helping him, then the effect of education is washed out,” said Michael D. Klitzner, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. “That kid has no motivation to say no to drugs. One can, if you walk a mile in his shoes, understand what the attraction would be.”

Mr. Klitzner, and others, also argue that the drug problem in some areas is closely connected to the economic and social conditions of the inner city.

“It sounds like liberal rubbish to say that we need economic development to solve the drug problem, but I think there’s a lot of truth to it,” he said.

“Drugs are not the problem,” said William Johnson, coordinator of drug education for the District of Columbia school system, located in the city whose drug wars have turned it into America’s murder--as well as na01tional--capital. “You’re talking about the economic situation, the home situation, the societal situation.”

In Washington, local police officials say, approximately 20 percent of the more than 10,000 individuals arrested for possessing or dealing in drugs were under the age of 18.

Others argue that both the adult society and the media send mixed messages to children about the worthiness of a drug-free society.

“We cannot have a serious war on drugs while we are subsidizing tobacco, while we are giving tax breaks for alcohol” consumed during business meals, said Mr. Klitzner.

“We’ve got to re-stigmatize and delegitimize drug use,” argued Peter Bell, executive director of the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse, ''and create new rites of passage, other ways for kids to demonstrate their mettle.”

New Grant Program

Some educators argue that probably the biggest impediment to their success is a lack of community support for their programs.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to remedy this situation, last month announced that it would begin a $26.4-million grant program to support community-based efforts to reduce the demand for illegal drugs and alcohol. Up to 12 communities with populations of 100,000 to 250,000 will receive the grants.

Other groups, however, have called for a greater emphasis on law enforcement as a way of fighting drugs. Last month, at the second national conference on crime and drugs hosted by the U. S. Conference of Mayors, speakers mostly cited stronger criminal penalties as a key means of combating drugs.


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