Drug use in the nation’s schools is increasing and parents are not aware of the extent of the problem, a new survey suggests.
Drugs and alcohol have become so common in the nation’s middle and high schools that for many students, “school days have become school daze,” the well-known head of a leading substance abuse research group says.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as health secretary during the Carter administration, tells WebMD that parents, school administrators, and government officials need to “wake up to the reality of increasingly drug-infested schools.”
Califano’s remarks coincide with the release of a survey designed to track attitudes and behaviors of teens and parents regarding substance abuse in the nation’s schools.
Based on survey responses, researchers concluded that 80% of the nation’s high school students and 44% of middle-schoolers have personally seen illegal drugs used or sold and/or students drunk or high on the grounds of their schools.
The survey was conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, which Califano founded and directs.
“This fall more than 16 million teens will return to middle and high schools where drug dealing, possession, use, and students high on alcohol or drugs are part of the fabric of their school,” Califano says.
“Parents should wake up to this reality and realize that more likely than not, your teen is going to school each day in a building where drug use, sale, and possession are as much a part of the curriculum as math or English.”
Drugs in School Survey
The survey included 1,063 teens between the ages of 12 and 17 and 550 parents of teens, half of whom had children who also completed the survey.
Teens were asked if drugs were “used, kept, or sold” at their schools. Based on these answers, schools were considered either “drug free” or “drug infested.”
Also based on the survey answers, researchers concluded that drug use in middle and high schools is on the rise.
The number of students who said they attended schools where drugs are used, kept, or sold increased by 20% between 2006 and 2007 among high-schoolers and 35% among middle-schoolers.
“This is a real increase,” Califano tells WebMD. “And the trend was the same regardless of where the school was or whether it was public or private.”
In fact, the biggest increases in drug exposure were reported in private middle and high schools.
There was a 38% reported increase between 2006 and 2007 in teens attending private high schools who are exposed to drugs at school, compared with a 16% increase among teens attending public high schools.
“Here in New York City the private schools are riddled with drugs, and it is the same in Washington, D.C., and other major cities,” Califano says. “There is no safe harbor for kids.”
Drugs, Schools, and the Cool Factor
Califano says he was most surprised by the responses to questions exploring drug use and popularity.
Overall, one in five teens surveyed said the most popular kids in their school had a reputation for using illegal drugs, and 32% said these popular teens frequently drank alcohol.
But teens attending drug-infested schools were 5.5 times more likely than other teens to answer in the affirmative when asked if the popular kids at their school did drugs. They were three times more likely to say the popular kids drank heavily.
Compared with popular teens at drug-free school, teens who considered themselves popular at schools where drugs were present were:
- At least 10 times more likely to have used prescription drugs to get high (10% vs. 0%).
- 9 times more likely to have used an illegal drug other than marijuana or prescription drugs (9% vs. 1%).
- 5 times more likely to get drunk in a typical month (17% vs. 3%).
Parents Blind to Drugs in Schools
Parents who completed the survey typically were unaware of the prevalence of drugs and alcohol at their children’s schools, or they felt powerless to do anything about it.
When asked to identify the most important problem teens faced, half as many parents as teens (11% vs. 24%) cited drugs, alcohol, and tobacco.
The fact that drugs are no longer on the radar screens of many parents is a big part of the problem, Califano contends.
“Until parents raise hell, nothing is going to change,” he says. “If there was asbestos in their child’s school or if it was infested with rats, parents wouldn’t stand for it. But they just accept drugs. Parents have to get to the point where they tell school officials, like in the old movie Network, ‘We’re mad as hell, and we aren’t going to take it anymore.’”
He adds that parents can have the biggest impact on their children’s behavior by simply being present in their lives.
“Studies show that just doing things like eating dinner with your child at night can make a huge difference,” he says.
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