ED Solicits Advice on Combating Youth Drug Use

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Alexandria, Va.

The Department of Education convened a small army of researchers last week as it mapped out plans for its anti-violence and anti-drug programs.

In a one-day conference here, the officials responsible for administering the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act met with drug education experts and social scientists from around the country to identify which prevention strategies are working and which ones aren't.

The Clinton administration has drawn fire in recent months from Republican lawmakers, who claim that the steady rise in drug use among young people is proof that federally funded drug-prevention tactics are ineffective.

Illicit drug use among 12- to 17-year-olds more than doubled between 1992 and 1995, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, a federally sponsored study published last summer.

During the same period, more than $3 billion was spent on the safe- and drug-free-schools program. Last week's meeting came as the program's supporters were seeking ways to justify the $64 million budget hike that President Clinton has requested for fiscal 1998.

What Works?

"We are concerned that many of the violence- and drug-prevention programs operated by local school districts have not employed sound practices in their design or implementation," William Modzeleski, the director of the program, said last week. "This is a time to take a critical look at their effectiveness."

Most of the researchers here agreed about which programs have flunked the drug education test.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, a popular anti-drug program that enlists local police officers as instructors, was so derided at the meeting that Mr. Modzeleski half-jokingly admonished an upcoming speaker not to mention "that four-letter word."

A recent study evaluating drug education curricula published by Drug Strategies, a Washington-based nonprofit group, gave DARE a C for its efforts to curb adolescent substance abuse. Since the critical report was published, at least a few school systems who were using DARE have shifted to other approaches.

DARE's approach is problematic, some researchers at the conference suggested, because the style of instruction is didactic.

The best prevention programs teach students practical skills to avoid violence or drug use instead of simply providing information on risk factors, the experts said.

A consistent anti-drug message, echoed throughout the entire school curriculum and reinforced by parents, has also been shown to make a difference. Districts should also plan on periodic evaluations to measure how the programs are doing and re-emphasize a district's goals.

At the close of the meeting, Mr. Modzeleski invited participants to help the Education Department draw up guidelines for financing federal drug education programs in the future. Suggestions will be incorporated into an amendment in the fiscal 1998 appropriations bill that would require districts receiving federal money to use proven methods to reduce student drug use, violence, and disruptive behavior.

In addition to arming for the budget fight, the department plans to present the amended guidelines to state and local drug education coordinators at a conference this spring, Mr. Modzeleski said.

But some researchers at the meeting said the department might entertain bigger questions--such as whether classroom anti-drug programs are worth the expense.

"We still don't know whether the investment of curricular time gives us enough payoff to justify the hours," said Richard Clayton, the director of the Center for Prevention Research at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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