ERIC Identifier: ED279644
Publication Date: 1986-00-00
Author: Barrett, Joan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education Washington DC.

Drug Abuse: Prevention Strategies for Schools. ERIC Digest 17.

Drugs threaten our nation's youth. The average age of initial marijuana use has dropped to 11 (Towers, 1987). During a 30-day period in 1985, 65 percent of high school seniors drank alcohol, 30 percent used marijuana, 15 percent snorted cocaine (Tarlov and others, 1986). Drug abuse can lead to physical problems, emotional damage, and a decline in educational achievement and productivity. Efforts to fight drug abuse must occur in the schools since they provide a major influence in transmitting values, standards, and information to children (U.S. Department of Education, 1986). This digest discusses the extent of drug abuse among youth, why drug abuse occurs, the effects of drug abuse, what schools can do to combat the problem, prevention programs, what teachers and principals can do, and future needs for drug abuse prevention programs.


Teenage drug use in the United States is the highest of any industrialized nation (U.S. Department of Education, 1986). Sixty-one percent of high school seniors have used drugs. During the last decade the percentage of children using drugs by sixth grade has tripled.

Alcohol, an illegal drug for minors, represents an even more serious problem than drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines (EDUCATION WEEK, 8 October 1986). The average age for beginning alcohol consumption is 12, and approximately 20 percent of U.S. high school students drink alcohol daily (Towers, 1987).

All communities throughout the United States, urban and suburban, show a high use of illicit drugs (U.S. Department of Education, 1986). More males use drugs than females, but the gap between the two has become smaller.


Studies show peer pressure plays the largest role in causing children to begin using drugs (Englander-Golden, 1984); Towers, 1987; U.S. Department of Education, 1986). Acceptance by peers becomes especially important when children leave elementary schools and begin junior high. At this critical age, "adolescents seem to be either unwilling or unable to successfully resist peer pressure in substance abuse situations" (Englander-Golden, 1984).

Other reasons for taking drugs include the constant exposure to our chemical society of pills and liquor through ads, movies, and television; a need to experiment; rebelliousness; and low self-esteem. Often simple pleasure serves as a motive. The user may feel good after taking drugs but may be unable to enjoy activities such as hobbies and sports (Towers, 1987).


Drugs produce many effects, including distortion of memory, perceptions, and sensation (U.S. Department of Education, 1986). For example, cocaine and amphetamines give users a false sense of performing at a high level when on the drug. So-called designer drugs, chemical variations of illegal drugs, have caused brain damage and death (Towers, 1987).

Frequent drug users skip school or arrive late to class (Wagner, 1984). Regular marijuana users are twice as likely as their classmates to receive low grades (U.S. Department of Education, 1986). Continued marijuana use can cause memory gaps and also lead to decreased physical endurance (Wagner, 1984). Marijuana users often develop sinusitis, pharyngitis, bronchitis, and emphysema within a year of beginning use (Wagner, 1984).

Experimenting with drugs, particularly at a young age, often leads to dependence (Towers, 1987). Those dependent on drugs sometimes support their habits by stealing, selling drugs to others, and sexually prostituting themselves.


Early intervention and prevention activities should characterize a school's drug abuse program (Towers, 1987). School administrators should determine the extent of the drug problem within their jurisdiction before initiating a new intervention program. This can be accomplished by an anonymous survey of students and consultation with local law enforcement officials. Collaborative plans should be made with parents, school boards, treatment agencies, and concerned groups within the community to ensure successful programs.

The U.S. Department of Education (1986) further recommends that school officials establish clear, consistently enforced drug-use policies that specify drug offenses, consequences (including notification of police), and procedures. Security measures should be implemented to eliminate drugs from school premises and school functions. A comprehensive drug curriculum from kindergarten through grade 12 is needed. Teachers should receive appropriate training to participate in the program.

School systems generally combine two approaches to preventing drug abuse (Lachance, 1985). One emphasizes discipline - what school personnel should do when drug abuse or peddling is encountered at the school. The other concerns education - instructing students about drugs and helping them develop skills and attitudes that will keep them away from drugs.


Programs popular in the 1960s and 1970s that focused only on drug information have been shown to be of questionable value (Lachance, 1985). Research reviews indicate the two most promising prevention approaches are the social influences model and a strategy that emphasizes personal and social skills training (Botvin, 1986). The social influences model teaches skills for resisting drug use. The personal and social skills approach expands the social influences model to include skills in problem solving, decision making, assertiveness, and conversation as well as strategies for reducing stress. Both approaches have led to significant reductions in cigarette smoking. Preliminary evidence suggests the approaches also work to reduce marijuana use and excessive drinking.

"Saying No" is one example of a drug abuse prevention program that emphasizes teaching students to resist peer pressure by understanding and practicing reasons for not taking drugs (Lachance, 1985). The approach, targeted to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, uses methods such as role modeling, videotaped practice, and assertiveness training to help students learn how to refuse drugs. The National Institute of Drug Abuse sponsors "Just Say No" clubs that offer booklets, pins, and T-shirts (Towers, 1987). Members find that the clubs give them a reason and way to say no.


Teachers exert a significant influence on students' attitudes, knowledge, and opinions. They can complement a school's drug abuse program by incorporating drug abuse prevention strategies into their subject at any grade level (Towers, 1987). For example, teachers can structure activities that require students to consider several options before making a decision. This classroom practice will increase the students' ability to identify options in other situations. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (1980) provides prevention ideas that can be incorporated into existing junior high school curricula. Towers (1987) lists additional in-class prevention activities for all grade levels.

In addition, teachers must inform students that they disapprove of drug abuse (Towers, 1987). Remaining quiet gives the impression of approval or unconcern. Students should be told that they will be reported if they come to school in possession of drugs or under their influence.

Any teacher who believes a student is abusing drugs should take action (Towers, 1987). Signs that may indicate drug abuse include redness around the eyes, dramatically changed appearance such as dirty hair, dilated pupils, reduced motivation, slurred speech, short attention span, changes in school attendance, falling grades, and uncompleted assignments (Towers, 1987; U.S. Department of Education, 1986; Wagner, 1984). The first step when suspecting drug abuse is to notify the appropriate school committee if one exists. Otherwise, the teacher should express concern to the student and to the parents, citing observed behaviors (Towers, 1987). Students who have been abusing drugs should be referred to professionals for help.

Intervention strategies must be supported by the school principal (Towers, 1987). Principals need to provide opportunities for teachers to meet for discussions about drug use and how they can fight the problem. They must inform students and parents that teachers have been authorized to communicate their concern. They need to have professionals available to counsel students. Finally, principals should follow up with students and/or parents after school personnel have intervened.


Today only 27 states have mandatory K-12 drug abuse prevention programs (National Association of State Boards of Education, 1986). Most states do not collect information on the programs nor evaluate their effectiveness. The prevention models that have shown promise need further research. A database is needed about the status and success of drug abuse prevention programs in each school so decisions can be made about allocating resources.


Botvin, Gilbert J. "Substance Abuse Prevention Research: Recent Developments and Future Directions." JOURNAL OF SCHOOL HEALTH 56 (1986): 369-374.

"Drug Education: Search for Success Continues." EDUCATION WEEK, 8 Oct. 1986: 11.



National Association of State Boards of Education. ALCOHOL AND DRUG ABUSE PREVENTION EDUCATION: SURVEY OF THE STATES. Alexandria, Virginia: National Association of State Boards of Education, 1986.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. SAYING NO: DRUG ABUSE PREVENTION IDEAS FOR THE CLASSROOM. 1980. ED 203 260.

Tarlov, Alvin R., and Rebecca W. Rimel. "Drug Abuse Prevention--The Sponsoring Foundations' Perspective." JOURNAL OF SCHOOL HEALTH 56 (1986): 358.

Towers, Richard L. HOW SCHOOLS CAN HELP COMBAT STUDENT DRUG AND ALCOHOL ABUSE. Washington, DC: National Education Association of the United States, 1987.

U.S. Department of Education. SCHOOLS WITHOUT DRUGS. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1986. ED 270 715.

Wagner, Brenda J. "Intervening with the Adolescent Involved in Substance Abuse." JOURNAL OF SCHOOL HEALTH 54 (1984): 244-246.

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