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Public School Programs : Fighting Drugs: The Big Question Is How to Do It

January 19, 1987|ELAINE WOO | Times Education Writer

What do police officers, politicians, puppets, clowns, professional athletes, movie stars and ex-cons have in common?

In recent years, all have been enlisted to help fight drug abuse in the public schools--and there is no solid proof that any of them have been effective. The number of youths who have experimented with or regularly use marijuana and other substances remains alarmingly high, even among students barely into pubescence, surveys show.

With the federal government preparing to pump $700 million into the nation's elementary and secondary schools for drug education over the next three years, however, school officials are expected to to propose even more prevention schemes.

The crucial question is whether they can create programs that work. After nearly two decades of research, authorities in drug abuse prevention say, that question--what works?--still begs a definitive answer.

"I want to make a clear statement, and it is a hard statement to make," Jeanne Gibbs, a San Francisco-based school consultant on drug education, said at a recent state Senate hearing on drug prevention in Ventura. "There is no one single program that, on its own, can be proven to prevent drug abuse."

Roy Pickens, director of clinical research for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, concurred. Because most prevention programs have not been thoroughly evaluated, and because those that have been assessed often produce mixed results, "we can't come out and recommend a particular strategy," he said in an interview from the institute's office in Rockville, Md.

That gives pause to educators and others trying to solve the youth drug problem.

Predicting that school officials will soon be "inundated by folks who'll want to sell them all kinds of programs," William Lennox, special assistant to Education Secretary William J. Bennett, acknowledged that the flow of federal dollars could lead to a flowering of programs that don't work. To help districts get "the best program for the money," Lennox said, the U.S. Department of Education will release a set of guidelines later this month to advise state and local education officials on the type of prevention programs they should strive to establish with the federal funds.

Legislation signed by President Reagan last October authorizes the federal government to spend $200 million this year and $500 million more over the next two years on drug education, the largest sum ever devoted to fighting drug abuse through the schools.

Bennett has, however, proposed cutting this year's allocation in half. In Los Angeles Friday to speak to a group of arts educators, Bennett said in an interview that he believes that $100 million is "all we think we need" to spend on drug education efforts this year, particularly because many existing programs are not backed by solid research.

California's Share

If Congress goes along with the budget cut, California's share would be about $7.5 million. State officials expect the funds to begin arriving in February. Under the terms of the federal law, 30% will be allocated by the governor and 70% will be distributed by the state superintendent of public instruction. The Los Angeles school district hopes to qualify for up to $1 million.

The pending federal guidelines, Lennox noted, probably will reflect the advice printed in a booklet the department released last September, "Schools Without Drugs." In that pamphlet, Bennett suggests that the best prevention efforts are comprehensive ones that involve parents, peer counselors and community leaders as well as schools.

The booklet mentions a number of school programs the department considers exemplary, but it stops short of advocating any one approach. Consensus is building among drug-prevention experts that a method that emphasizes the need to make students aware of the social pressures known to lead to drug abuse, and that helps them develop skills to resist such pressures, may produce the most durable results.

At this point, however, it is easier for the experts to agree on what does not work.

Preaching Shunned

Gimmicky one-shot strategies, like anti-drug rallies featuring celebrities and bands, are entertaining but, authorities say, unproductive.

"Kids don't like to be preached to," said Ruth Rich, who has overseen health instruction for the Los Angeles Unified School District for more than 20 years.

Scare tactics, popular several years ago, also fizzled, she said. This approach ranged from showing youngsters where drug use might lead--prison--to inviting recovering addicts to campuses to deliver grim warnings based on firsthand experience.

Of the latter tactic, Rich said: "We know that is not the approach to take. . . . Recovering addicts come in looking like nothing happened to them. Kids look at them and think, 'You look fine.' "

The cocaine-related death last year of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, however, "started it all over again," she said. "Everyone wanted to come into the schools and tell their story."

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