Student Anti-Drinking Groups Gain Adherents, But Advocates of 'No Use' Remain Skeptical
TOWSON, MD.--When students in Towson High School's chapter of Students Against Driving Drunk talk about the "fun facts" they want to broadcast over the public address system, they are not referring to answers to Trivial Pursuit questions.
Instead, they hope to shock their fellow students at this suburban Baltimore school with some rather sobering information: that someone dies in an alcohol-related accident every 23 minutes, and that alcohol-related injuries are the number one cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds.
"We just try to get people's attention, and remind them, and not try to preach," Lisa Greenhouse, the chapters president, says.
"If you are going to come out and say, 'Don't drink,' they'd say, 'Get lost,'" the senior says. "But we've never said it's O.K. to drink as long as you don't drive."
Although this non-preachy, student-to-student effort to persuade classmates not to drink, and not to drink and drive, has caught on among teenagers--with 25,000 chapters in middle schools and high schools across the country--some drug-education specialists and federal officials are uncomfortable with the program.
To these critics, SADD subtly promotes the responsible use of alcohol, at a time when programs should stress abstinence.
Backers of the program note, however, that SADD makes it clear that underage drinking is illegal, and that SADD members pledge to follow a drug-free lifestyle.
"You really could think that there's an underlying message that we are encouraging people to drink," says Nancy Hutchins, the SADD chapter adviser at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md. "But I don't think that's the message."
"I guess if I felt we were encouraging students to drink, I wouldn't be part of it," she adds. "I think saving lives is very important."
No one questions, however, that alcohol use and abuse by teenagers remains a serious problem.
According to a survey by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, 89.5 percent of the students in the class of 1990 said they had used alcohol at least once, and almost a third said they had had five or more drinks in a row during the past two weeks. Other federal surveys have found that about one-third of all students have accepted a ride from a driver who had been drinking.
'Contract for Life'
When SADD started in 1981, its main focus was on preventing drunken driving. That year, 6,280 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 died in alcohol-related traffic accidents. In contrast, nearly 2,700 teenagers died in such accidents last year, a decrease SADD leaders say demonstrates the effectiveness of their program.
In most chapters, students design public-awareness campaigns against drinking, and against drinking and driving.
Here at Towson, for example, students create banners and floats for sporting events and will place "crash dummies" outside of the school in a wrecked car, to demonstrate graphically the effects of drunken driving. The chapter also sponsors drug and alcohol-free events, and hosts assemblies featuring special speakers.
Probably the most well-known, and controversial, element of SADD is its "Contract for Life," which both the teenager and parent sign. In its original incarnation, the adolescent pledged to call home at any time, or at any place, if he was intoxicated or with a drunken driver. The parent, in turn, agreed to pick up the child, no questions asked. The contract states that the incident could be discussed at a later time.
Since SADD'S rounding, however, the political climate and popular theories about drug-abuse prevention have changed. Since 1986, when the Congress adopted the Drug-Free Schools and Communities
Act, all programs funded by the U.S. Education Department must espouse a clear "no use" message.
In a no-use program, students are told that any use of drugs, tobacco, or alcohol by minors is wrong and harmful. Responsible use programs, by contrast, while not condoning drug use, stress informed decisionmaking, or attempt to limit the riskiest forms of behavior, such as drinking and driving.
A U.S. General Accounting Office study, released last month, charges that the department unnecessarily limits its drug-free schools program by only considering schools with a strict no-use approach.
The problem, the study states, is that research has not shown "the general superiority of one prevention approach over any other, nor have any evaluations isolated the effects of a no-use approach." (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991 .)
A 'Mixed' Message
Over the past decade, SADD's policies have changed to more clearly reflect a no-use message, contends William Cullinane, the acting executive director of the Marlboro, Mass.-based group.
"The goal initially was to prevent young people from dying," he says. "Once young people proved they could do that, we've moved along to the point that we ask students to accept a no-use lifestyle."
The Contract for Life, he notes, has undergone several changes, the most recent of which includes a note in boldface at the top that states that the signers "understand that SADD requires all youths to adopt a no-use policy."
Language that would indicate that the teenaged signer had himself been drinking was dropped in the early 80's, Mr. Cullinane says. Instead, the adolescent pledges to call for a ride "if I am ever faced with a situation where a driver has been drinking or using illicit drugs." Despite these modifications, some educators are reluctant to embrace SADD.
Officials from the Education Department, for example, say the activities and philosophy of each SADD chapter, like those of any other anti-drug activity, must be individually examined before a chapter can qualify for federal drug-education money, which is passed through the states, or be eligible for the department's drug-free schools recognition program.
"Nobody can make a blanket statement about the SADD program," says William Modzeleski, director of the department's drug-abuse-prevention oversight staff, noting that individual chapters may have policies that do not meet federal standards. "We've been working with SADD for a long time, looking at how it can be strengthened."
James Better, the department's staff director for the recognition program, says there are still concerns about the latest contract. A 1989 letter from the department to SADD officials, which Mr. Better says still represents the department's views, notes that, while "SADD does not expressly condone illegal drinking by students, we believe that the implicit message that the 'Contract for Life' sends is mixed."
Officials in some states also express skepticism about the program.
"Basically, it really conflicts with the drug-free-schools philosophy," says Danny Trujillo, the drug-free-schools and communities coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Education and the former SADD state director.
'The Awareness Is There'
Mr. Trujillo says SADD-which he believes espouses a "responsible use" policy-is being phased out of the state, and is being replaced by programs that emphasize peer-counseling and peer-helping.
"SADD was good for its time, but since then, it has not kept up with the research [emphasizing prevention]," he says.
"We don't feel it extends the purpose of the [drug-free-schools] program, which is essentially no use," says Betty Lohraff, the director of instructional improvement and resources for the Missouri Department of Education. Schools that want to use their federal money to fund SADD activities must explain how the chapter complies with the program's rules, she says.
But schools that have SADD chapters say the groups have made a noticeable difference in students' attitudes about alcohol use.
"I have heard kids say, 'You have been drinking and you drove? You're crazy!'" says Rachel Lopez Arnold, an English teacher and the SADD adviser at Deer Valley High School in Glendale, Ariz. "[Kids] have taken keys, they've taken air out of tires to prevent their friends from driving."
"The vast majority of kids are aware of not drinking and driving," she adds. "I know there are parties all the time, and kids are drinking--but at least the awareness is there."
Tamra Reszler, vice president of the SADD chapter at Aberdeen Central High School in South Dakota, says she believes the group has persuaded students to adopt alcohol-free lifestyles.
"I think it adds a little bit more pressure for a kid to go up to a kid and say, 'I don't think you should be drinking,' "she says. .
Vol. 11, Issue 07, Pages 6-7Published in Print: October 16, 1991, as Student Anti-Drinking Groups Gain Adherents, But Advocates of 'No Use' Remain Skeptical