Student Well-Being

Drugs Are Easy To Get at School, Teens Say

By Jessica Portner — September 17, 1997 5 min read
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Illegal drugs are easier to procure on school grounds than in students’ neighborhoods, students report in a national survey released last week.

Meanwhile, a second study also published last week could shed light on what might prevent young people from getting involved in illicit drugs in the first place.

Initial results from the largest and most comprehensive study of adolescents ever undertaken in the United States show that teenagers who have strong family relationships and nourishing school environments are least likely to engage in a range of risky behaviors.

Students who feel that teachers treat them fairly and who are close to people at school tend to use cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana less and are involved in fewer incidents of violent behavior, suicide, and early sexual activity, says the study published in the Sept. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

School Officials Unaware?

But it is the national survey from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University that is sure to raise some eyebrows.

The center, known as casa, commissioned researchers to poll 1,115 adolescents ages 12 to 17, 998 parents, 789 teachers, and 401 principals by phone between June and July. The margins of error range from 2.9 percentage points to 4.9 percentage points, depending on the subgroup.

Forty-one percent of the high school students said they had seen drugs sold at school, while 25 percent said illegal substances were peddled in their neighborhoods.

A Principal Difference

When it comes to drug usage, principals and students have different perspectives on the prevalence of the problem in their schools.

“Back to School 1997-- National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse III: Teens and Their Parents, Teachers, and Principals” is available for $22 from CASA, 152 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019-3310. It can also be found at

SOURCE: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

But while teenagers say drugs are commonplace at school, school leaders are often oblivious to the situation, the report on the findings says. Only 12 percent of high school teachers and 14 percent of principals said they had seen drug dealing at school, according to the report.

The researchers found that differing perceptions between students and school staff members also extended to cigarette smoking on campus: Sixty percent of the principals and half of the teachers interviewed said that students don’t smoke at school; only 30 percent of teenagers agreed.

By the time middle school students reach age 13, 34 percent have friends who drink regularly, and 29 percent can buy marijuana within a day--12 percent within an hour or less, the teenagers said.

Overall, 35 percent of the teenagers surveyed said that illegal drug use at school is the biggest problem they face.

But half of the high school teachers and 41 percent of the middle school teachers said they believe teenagers can smoke marijuana every weekend and still do well in school, while only 24 percent of students reported that using marijuana on the weekend would have no negative influence on their grades.

Despite these different assessments of the extent and impact of teenagers’ drug use, all parties agreed that tough remedies should be taken to help rid schools of drugs, the study found. Half of the students and principals support drug testing of all students. In addition, a majority of students, teachers, principals, and parents support random locker searches and zero-tolerance drug policies on campus.

“The good news is that our middle and high school children are crying out for help, and teachers care,” said Joseph A. Califano Jr., the president of CASA. But Mr. Califano, who served as the U.S. secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Carter administration, said that the prevalence of illegal drugs at school imperils children’s educational opportunities and that school leaders must redouble their commitment to “purge our schools of drugs.”

William Modzeleski, the director of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program for the U.S. Department of Education, concurred with the sentiment that schools must take active steps to keep their campuses drug free. But he added that the survey may not be representative of schools as a whole.

“This is not the prevailing picture in most schools in America today,” Mr. Modzeleski said.

A Holistic View

The other study out last week, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Between 1993 and 1996, more than 90,000 middle and high school students in 145 schools around the country completed written surveys about their health, friendships, and family for the congressionally mandated study of adolescent health. Initial findings from the $25 million federally funded study were based on at-home interviews with 12,000 of the students.

Researchers in the education and adolescent health fields say this research--the results of which will be published periodically over the next decade or so--breaks new ground in the field of adolescent health because it looks at teenagers holistically. The investigators examined the motivations behind many adolescent behaviors and identified the societal and educational factors that may protect young people from harm.

“This looks at kids as whole people, not segmenting them into different parts as drug-using or sexual entities,” said Kristin Moore, a leading children’s health researcher at Child Trends, a Washington-based research group.

Researchers, such as Ms. Moore, will use the massive database to conduct studies on a range of topics over the next several years.

Upcoming findings will focus on the influence of fathers on children’s development, why younger children have sex, and how AIDS is transmitted among youths.

Educators have said this research may help them focus their efforts on strategies that encourage students to excel in school. “If kids feel connected to school employees, they are less likely to be risk-takers, and that’s a role that schools ought to strengthen,” said Brenda Greene, the manager of school health programs at the National School Boards Association.

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