ERIC Identifier: ED340150
Publication Date: 1991-11-00
Author: Leone, Peter E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Handicapped and Gifted Children Reston VA.
Alcohol and Other Drug Use by Adolescents with Disabilities.
ERIC Digest #E506.
Among industrialized nations of the world the United States has one of the
highest rates of alcohol and other drug use. In recent years, while use of other
drugs has leveled off or declined slightly among adolescents, use of alcohol
continues at a very high rate.
Numerous surveys of adolescent alcohol and drug use have been conducted
during the past 20 years but very few of those studies have independently
examined use by students enrolled in special education or have included students
with disabilities in their samples. The data that do exist on alcohol and other
drug use by adolescents and others with disabilities come primarily from
clinical studies and geographically limited samples. The quality of the research
is highly variable and numerous methodological problems exist.
ARE STUDENTS WITH DISABLING CONDITIONS MORE LIKELY TO USE OR
ABUSE ALCOHOL OR OTHER DRUGS THAN THEIR PEERS?
For the most part, data indicate
that students identified as disabled are no more likely to use or abuse alcohol
or drugs than their peers (Moore & Polsgrove, 1991; Leone, 1991). However,
several studies suggest that among adolescents with emotional and behavioral
disorders, the prevalence of alcohol and other drug use and abuse is higher than
among their age mates (Leone, Greenberg, Trickett, & Spero, 1989). Among
adolescents or adults labeled hyperactive, attention deficit disordered, or
learning disabled there is conflicting evidence concerning whether the
prevalence of drug or alcohol use is higher or comparable to peers. Finally,
accidents associated with drug and alcohol use are the leading cause of head
injury and orthopedic impairment among adolescents. For some of these youths,
alcohol and/or drug use and subsequent trauma is an event preceding their
identification as students in need of special education and related services. In
contrast, for students identified as behaviorally disordered, alcohol or other
drug use may be one of a cluster of behaviors that may include poorly developed
interpersonal and/or academic skills and school failure. The limited information
that exists indicates that most students with disabling conditions are no more
likely to use drugs or alcohol than their age mates; however, characteristics of
some adolescents with disabilities may place them at greater risk for use or
abuse of controlled substances. Among adolescents in general, school failure and
low commitment to school are associated with substance use.
ARE STUDENTS WITH PROBLEMS OF ALCOHOL AND DRUG DEPENDENCY
ENTITLED TO SPECIAL EDUCATION AND RELATED SERVICES?
Drug and alcohol dependent
students are not identified in the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act, formerly the EHA, P.L. 94-142) as a group entitled to special education and
related services. In response to a 1979 inquiry, the Office of Special Education
Programs (at that time the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped) responded
that chemical dependency did not meet the definition of handicapped under the "other health impairment" category because it did not result from injury or
disease. However, several years later, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the
U.S. Department of Education ruled that under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation
Act of 1973, a student's drug addiction fell within the definition of "physical
or mental impairment." Recently, OCR changed its position. In clarifying the
effect of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Section 504 regulations, OCR
stated that individuals who illegally use alcohol or other drugs are no longer
defined under 504 as handicapped.
While alcohol or other drug dependency is not considered a disabling
condition by IDEA or Section 504, state level due process hearing officers have
ruled that students' alcohol or drug use does not unilaterally exclude them from
referral or assessment for special education and related services. While drug or
alcohol dependent students are not typically serviced in special education
programs, exclusion of students from services on the basis of their addiction is
not a viable response to the educational needs of those students.
HOW SHOULD SCHOOLS RESPOND TO STUDENTS ENROLLED IN SPECIAL
EDUCATION PROGRAMS WHO USE DRUGS AND/OR ALCOHOL?
Schools need to acknowledge that
some students receiving special education services, like their nondisabled
peers, use alcohol and other drugs. At the present time however, there are very
few schools that have examined use or abuse among exceptional children or that
have developed specialized prevention and education activities (Drug education,
1991). Most schools' substance abuse policies include exclusionary responses to
alcohol and other drug use within their codes of student conduct (U.S.
Department of Education, 1987). For students receiving special education
services, disciplinary exclusion for more than 10 days or expulsion from school
would appear to violate the intent of the Supreme Court's decision in Honig vs.
Doe (108 U.S. S. Ct. 592 ). Further, exclusion from school does not deter
alcohol and other drug use.
Schools concerned with alcohol and other drug use by students enrolled in
special education programs need to develop awareness and prevention activities,
procedures to refer students and their families to treatment when necessary, and
specific reentry plans to assist youths returning to school after receiving
intensive alcohol or other drug treatment. At the present time, very few
prevention projects have been developed for specialized populations and very
limited curricula exist (Moore & Ford, 1991).
HOW CAN SCHOOLS AND EDUCATORS DETER STUDENTS ENROLLED IN
SPECIAL EDUCATION PROGRAMS FROM USING DRUGS AND ALCOHOL?
At the present time we
do not know whether school-based prevention programs developed to deter
youngsters from using alcohol and other drugs are successful. While many
programs have changed students' attitudes and have increased their knowledge
concerning alcohol and other drugs, we have little information concerning
whether those activities actually reduce consumption of controlled substances
(GAO, 1990). However, there is some evidence that broad-based prevention efforts
that target multiple environmental influences can be successful in reducing
student alcohol and other drug use (Pentz et al., 1989). If we consider that one
of the correlates of alcohol and drug use among adolescents is school failure
and low commitment to school, an important step that advocates for youths with
disabilities can take is to ensure that students receive quality instruction and
actively participate in their school community. Educators can ensure that the
messages they communicate to students about drug and alcohol use don't enable or
inadvertently foster the use of these substances by students (Johnson, 1988).
Drug use among high school students in the United States currently appears to
be declining slightly, but frequent use of alcohol remains at fairly high
levels. The data that do exist suggest that for most students identified as
disabled, the prevalence of drug and alcohol use is comparable to their age
mates. However, most prevention efforts have not targeted special education
students nor have special educators applied for federal grants to develop drug
prevention programs. (Drug education, 1991). Among other things, those
interested in the welfare of children and adolescents with disabilities need to
become aware of the problems associated with drug and alcohol use and abuse, and
need to become involved in prevention and treatment efforts. Special educators
need to work with school administrators and staffs to develop positive
alternatives to the punitive responses that characterize many school substance
abuse policies (U.S. Department of Education, 1987; Marcus et al., 1985).
Another positive step would be to strengthen the links between schools, mental
health, juvenile justice, and other community agencies that serve youths who may
be using and/or abusing drugs or alcohol. Interagency collaboration among those
service providers could ensure that professionals respond to problem behavior
related to drug or alcohol use in a consistent manner and that educators learn
how their own behavior might deter student substance abuse and support those in
Drug and alcohol use or abuse, like the concept of disability, is not a
monolithic concept. Just as those labeled disabled may experience cognitive,
motoric, or perceptual problems, so too, individuals who use and abuse
controlled substances exhibit a wide range of behaviors and may report that they
take drugs or use alcohol for a variety of reasons. The challenge for educators
and others concerned about individuals with disabilities is to become informed
about the drug culture in their community, know when to discuss incipient
problems with parents or guardians and refer students to treatment when
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