Opinion: Carolina Beat

Old Drug War, New Enemy

It’s time for a paradigm shift in the K-12 war against drugs. New developments and emerging data demand it. Not only is our school-based drug problem growing, it’s affecting kids at younger ages and in an increasingly insidious way.

As events this school year attest, K-12 drug peddling and proffering isn’t limited to dissolute older adolescents. Consider the following: In September, two Halifax County students, ages 10 and 11, brought marijuana to school. That same month, a Washington County fourth-grader took marijuana to school and gave it to another student. Does this spate of pubescent drug possession mean Hannah Montana backpack searches will soon be routine?

For now, that’s unlikely. Illicit drugs are still relatively rare in elementary schools. According to state statistics, elementary schools reported 36 incidents of “possession of a controlled substance in violation of the law” in 2006-07. The thousands of incidents recorded by high schools dwarf that figure. Still, possessing a controlled substance ranks among the top three problems reported by elementary schools on North Carolina’s crime and violence report.

National data on middle schools should do little to quell concern that our K-12 drug problem is skewing younger. A 2007 survey from Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse focusing specifically on drugs in schools found that drugs are proliferating faster in middle schools than in high schools. According to CASA, “the proportion of students who attend schools where drugs are used, kept, or sold has jumped … 63 percent for middle school” since 2002, compared to 39 percent for high school.

Earlier exposure is only part of the problem. Teens’ chosen substances are changing, too, with more adolescents turning to the contents of medicine cabinets to get high. The arrest this fall of a 16-year-old Wake County private-school student for prescription drug dealing, which was reported widely by the media, exemplifies this disturbing trend. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more adolescents are abusing prescription drugs now than any other illicit drug except marijuana. A 2006 study from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, aptly dubbing American teens “Generation Rx,” found that one in five adolescents had abused prescription medications such as Vicodin or OxyContin. Prescription drug abuse is compounded by its ready availability: These drugs are now even easier to buy than beer, say teens on CASA’s most recent survey.

What are schools to do? Obviously, attacking the K-12 drug problem requires a multipronged strategy, involving school administrators, parents, communities, and law-enforcement officials. But schools must do their part to keep campuses drug-free. They are, after all, morally and legally obligated to do so. That means not shying away from tough, punitive measures when they’re warranted.

However, promoting a positive school culture can also serve as a powerful deterrent against drug abuse. For the past 10 years, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School System has emphasized personal responsibility through a systemwide, random drug-testing program. The nonpunitive, voluntary “It’s My Call/It’s Our Call” program, which is mandatory only for high school students in extracurricular activities, has been lauded at the national level for its success and efficacy. According to Kathy Jordan, the school system’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program specialist, evaluations show “lower substance abuse rates in practically every major category” for student participants.

That’s good news in a fight against a constantly evolving enemy. In the K-12 drug war, though, we must not forget the most powerful weapon in our arsenal: parents. As CASA Chief Joe Califano often points out, parent engagement, more than almost any other factor, helps keep kids on the straight and narrow. That fact imbues even the simplest of activities, such as family meals, homework help, and daily conversation, with the power to put kids on a trajectory for good. With stakes like that, surely we can spare the time.

Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance fellow.