The three most popular programs used by schools to prevent drug use are not among those proven to be effective, according to a survey of 81 school districts in 11 states.
The survey also shows that school-based efforts on drug education are plagued by "shortages of teacher time and money," both at the district and school levels. Dr. Denise Hallfors of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, colleagues and students conducted the study and released it to participating school districts and the public Monday (May 1).
Hallfors, research associate professor of maternal and child health at the UNC-CH School of Public Health, said the survey of drug education coordinators showed that the most common programs used by school districts are Drug Awareness and Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), Here's Looking at You and McGruff's Drug Prevention and Child Protection.
"These programs may be popular with the public and the schools, but there are little or no data to show that they have been proven to be strong and effective in combating drug use," she said. Proven programs are available, such as Reconnecting Youth, Life Skills Training, Project ALERT, Project STAR, Alcohol Misuse Prevention and Project Northland, Hallfors said. These and other good programs offer schools a growing choice of effective drug prevention and education curricula.
"It is not enough for a teacher, a parent or a police officer to tell school children that drugs are bad for you, don't use them," she said. "We have to go beyond that. We have to use role-playing and skills learning to help children negotiate with peers and make positive choices.
"A 1998 federal policy requires schools to conduct a needs assessment, select proven strategies to prevent drug use based on the school's needs, and then evaluate whether the efforts actually helped to reduce drug use," the researcher said. "This is a very positive move, but it takes time, expertise and money."
Congress funds drug education and prevention at the school level through the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (SDFSC). The U.S. Department of Education, which distributes the funds through state and local education agencies, requires that school districts spend the money on effective programs.
"The good news is that a growing number of schools are beginning to use more effective programs," Hallfors said. "Drug prevention coordinators at the school district level report that key decision-makers support prevention and want to improve their programs, but the federal initiative to use proven programs is just beginning to be implemented."
The Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the UNC-Chapel Hill survey. Hallfors said that her survey sample favors large school districts in urban areas. Large school districts account for only 5 percent of the school districts in the country, but have more than 50 percent of the children who attend the nation's schools. She surveyed school districts in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.
"The problem is that teacher training and quality control, while essential for good programs, are costly," Hallfors said. At current funding levels, the typical amount spent per child is about $5, with slightly more going to districts designated as in high need. The survey also concluded that
- Almost half of all district prevention coordinators reported that they personally spent 10 hours or less a week on substance abuse education and prevention programs. Only 20 percent of coordinators reported that they spent 30 hours or more on those programs.
- Smaller and more rural districts were less likely to have heard of the Department of Education policy on effective programs and, even if they had heard, were less likely to have started implementation.
- Almost all school districts reported that they had zero tolerance policies, which they believed were important and decreased substance use in school, although they did not believe they reduced substance use overall.
- Most coordinators said a student would receive an out-of-school suspension, if caught with alcohol or drugs.
- School tobacco policies are relatively lenient, and are less likely to be strictly applied.
- Fewer than half of the coordinators reported that their district had prevention activities specifically targeting students at high risk for substance abuse.
Note: Hallfors and Pankratz can be reached at 919-966-6287.
News Services contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596.
School of Public Health contact: Lisa Katz, 966-7467.
Health Sciences Policy Communications, Inc. contact: Prabhu Ponkshe, 703-918-4930.