Student Well-Being From Our Research Center

Schools Face Big Challenges in Curbing Students’ Substance Abuse

By Lauraine Langreo — June 19, 2023 4 min read
Joe Solomon, co-director of Charleston-based Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, holds a dose of the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston in Charleston, W.Va., on Sept. 6, 2022. He and other organizers were preparing for the third annual "Save a Life" day event where thousands of doses of Narcan were distributed throughout all of West Virginia's 55 counties.
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The bad news keeps getting worse in many places when it comes to the challenges districts face in addressing students’ substance abuse.

School health workers in most districts report that they are facing challenges in trying to curb the numbers of students who are vaping and abusing alcohol, marijuana, and opioids, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey that polled 3,480 school-based health professionals in March.

Sixty-seven percent of the respondents said student vaping, smoking, and/or chewing tobacco products is “a challenge” or “a major challenge” to deal with in their districts. Student marijuana use is “a challenge” or “a major challenge” for 56 percent of respondents; 40 percent said the same for alcohol; and 23 percent for opioid use.

Nationwide, the number of adolescents who report that they’ve used or are using substances held steady in 2022 after a decline in 2021, according to the most recent data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But an overwhelming majority of school-based health professionals reported seeing an increase in the number of students using marijuana (72 percent) or vaping/smoking/chewing tobacco (83 percent) since 2019, the EdWeek Research Center survey found.

“Many students have been vaping, and some are using substances in vaping that cause them to hallucinate and have very high heart rates, sometimes needing to be evaluated at the emergency room,” said a nurse from Indiana in an open-ended response to the EdWeek Research Center survey.

Experts attributed the increase that school-based health professionals are seeing to the worsening youth mental health crisis, because substance use is often a coping mechanism for poor mental health.

While student substance abuse isn’t a new challenge for school districts, there are new factors making it more difficult for districts to address these challenges.

The substances that adolescents are experimenting with today “are much more deadly and much more addictive than some of the prior ones we’ve seen,” said Darrell Sampson, the executive director of student services for the Arlington Public Schools in Virginia.

One example is fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid drug. It only takes a very small amount for someone to get high, and it’s so strong that one could easily overdose or die from it, Sampson said. In fact, fentanyl and related substances have contributed to a dramatic rise in drug overdose deaths in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Vape pens have also made it more difficult for educators to catch students who are using drugs because they aren’t as obvious as cigarettes, experts said. And the normalization and legalization of adult marijuana use might also be contributing to students’ use of it.

Substance abuse can negatively affect students’ learning, memory, and attention, according to experts, so schools have good reason to address these challenges head on.

When asked what their school or district is doing to address students’ mental health/substance-use challenges, the top five answers from school-based health professionals were: providing mental health care through community partnerships; in-school, one-on-one therapy; training all staff to flag issues; training staff to offer support; and keeping naloxone (medicine that treats opioid overdoses) on hand, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey.

In the Arlington, Va., district, there are six substance abuse counselors who create prevention and intervention programs, Sampson said. School staff members are also trained to use naloxone. And as of May 2023, high school students are now trained and allowed to carry naloxone in school buildings, as long as they have parental consent.

Schools can take steps to help students facing these challenges, according to the advice that experts shared with Education Week. Those recommendations include:

  • Have good partnerships with parents. Schools can play a key role in bringing parents together to talk about substance use problems their children are facing. Parents “need support on how to be parents in 2023, because it is different than when they were growing up,” said Flavio Marsiglia, a professor at the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. Providing these forums for parents could also destigmatize the problem, he added.
  • Schools need a multidisciplinary approach. “School nurses play a key role,” but schools shouldn’t “put all the burden on one individual,” Marsiglia said. Successful prevention programs are multidisciplinary, have good leadership, and ensure parents and the community are included.
  • Teachers need support. “We don’t want them to be psychologists and social workers,” Marsiglia said, but they can support prevention efforts. Teachers can learn how to identify problems and the steps for referring a student who might be dealing with a substance use disorder.
  • Recognize that students are having a very hard time. Students need coping mechanisms to help them deal with stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges, said Ijeoma Opara, an assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health. “We need to invest more care and more resources in mental health to be able to support kids,” she said.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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