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Reading, Writing…and Drugs?

American students report drugs readily available at school

THURSDAY, Sept. 6, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Students across the United States have access not only to books but apparently to drugs, as well.

Half of American high school students and nearly a quarter of middle school students know whom to go to in their schools to buy drugs, an exhaustive new survey reports. And when drugs are available, the kids are likely to try them, says Columbia University researcher Sue Foster, author of the report on the widespread availability of drugs.

Foster and her colleagues say that, by the time kids graduate from high school, 71 percent have smoked, 81 percent have drunk alcohol, 47 percent have smoked marijuana and 24 percent have used other illicit drugs.

"Every schoolchild will have to make a conscious decision whether or not to use drugs, and just by being in an environment [where drugs are available] increases the risk that kids will use drugs," Foster says.

And of those who do try cigarettes, drinking and marijuana at young ages, she says, more than two-thirds are still using the substances in their senior year.

"Parents often think experimentation is a benign rite of passage," she says. "But it isn't benign because these habits continue. And, further, the earlier and more frequently you use these substances, the greater the likelihood of dependence on them later in life."

Foster's report, released Wednesday, is the result of a six-year study that included 100 focus groups of students, parents, teachers and administrators in about 50 schools. It also included surveys of teen-agers, reviews of several large national data banks and an extensive review of substance abuse studies and literature. The study was sponsored by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, based at Columbia University in New York.

"We tried to paint the most complete picture we could of what we know about substance abuse in our schools, and we did a pretty good job of it," she says.

Among the findings:

  • Every year, 13.2 million schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 17 become new users of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs.
  • Among students who have ever tried cigarettes, 85 percent are still smoking in their senior year.
  • Among those who have ever been drunk, 83.3 percent are still getting drunk in their senior year.
  • Among those who have ever tried marijuana, 76.4 percent are still using the drug in 12th grade.
  • Substance abuse is higher in rural areas than cities, especially among 8th graders.

"You can buy what you want in school or hook up with someone there who knows where to get it," says Robert Mecir, a narcotics expert with the California Department of Justice who heads a drug task force in San Jose that works with schools to reduce drug use.

The most disturbing aspect of the study, Foster says, is that parents don't seem that upset about the prevalence of drugs in their children's' schools.

"Why do we allow this to happen?" she asks. "Parents flip out about asbestos in the schools. They should demand that schools be more active [in curtailing drug availability and use]."

Rather, the researchers say, they found a lot of finger pointing about the problem by parents, teachers and school administrators rather than serious attempts to find solutions.

"Everybody has somebody to blame, but it's time to start looking in the mirror," she says.

"A lot of parents minimize the risks of substance use, but using it at younger ages has psychological effects, and the purity and strength of drugs is much more significant today than it was 30 years ago," she says.

Also, there is more awareness today of the health consequences of substance abuse than there was when the parents were young, and "parents aren't completing facing up to that fact," Foster says.

Also a factor, according to Mecir, is that some parents are "in denial and think that their kids aren't exposed to drugs, but it's available if they want to get it."

Teachers tend to think that drug education is someone else's job, they say, and school administrators think that parents should take the initiative on working with their own children.

But parents are the first line of defense, Foster says, and those parents who are the most actively involved in their children's lives -- enforcing curfews, keeping track of activities, having dinner together at night -- have children who are far less likely to use drugs.

She also maintains that schools that now have zero-tolerance programs -- expelling children who are found with drugs or alcohol -- and treatment programs should alter the programs to achieve more success. The report recommends training school staff to spot abuse, providing strong, new messages every year, with age-appropriate advice on the dangers of drugs, and increasing attachment to the school so that students have positive reasons for achieving success.

To implement the recommendations, the substance abuse center at Columbia is "in the process of designing a national demonstration program to make models for schools," Foster says.

Adds Mecir: "You have to start [talking about drugs] in middle school because, by the time kids get to high school, it's too late."

What To Do

To read more on the prevalence of substance abuse in schools, check out a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. For help in spotting signs of substance abuse in teens, visit Focus Adolescent Services.

SOURCES: Interviews with Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University, New York City; and Robert Mecir, commander, Santa Clara County Specialized Enforcement Team, California Department of Justice, San Jose, Calif.
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