Albion Monitor /News

America's "Just Say No" Addiction

State Drug Education Gets "F" Study Says

by Jeff Elliott

California's $1.6 billion program asking children to "just say no to drugs and alcohol" has failed because most kids don't believe the message or the ways they are delivered, says a report -- but you won't find many educators who know this. The California State Department of Education is not publishing the study.

The report, "In Their Own Voices: Students and Educators Evaluate California School-Based Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco, Education (DATE) Programs," was concluded last March by Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley. Analyzing data from more than 5,000 students, researchers found:

  • Many students do not view the rationale for a "no-use" message as credible because of their own personal observations and experiences
  • More than 40 percent of the students said drug education and services had no effect on their own substance use
  • Seven out of 10 students said they felt neutral or negative towards their drug educators
  • School-based policies intended to help "at-risk" students fail because troublesome students are driven out of the school system

    "This data suggests we need to change our view of today's children," says Dr. Joel Brown, principle author of the study. "Otherwise, we won't be able to truly reach students who do not use substances at all, or who might experiment with substances. But most importantly, if we do not change our views of today's children, we won't be able to reach kids most at risk for substance abuse."

  • Even younger children are far more sophisticated about drugs than most adults realize

    Much of the report contains excerpts from transcribed interviews with about 250 elementary, middle, and high school students. Interviewed in small groups by an adult, Brown says that even younger children are far more sophisticated about drugs than most adults realize, and think that the "just say no" approach is simplistic. "What we found reaffirms the idea that the this get-tough message is part of the alienation that students in our study repeatedly described," Brown says.

    In the published transcriptions, even elementary schoolage children demonstrates a cynical attitude about their drug education programs:

    CHILD: I think it's nothing! It's exaggeration!
    CHILD: They lie to you so you won't do it!...
    CHILD: Oh, they lie to you so that you won't do the drugs! They think you're dumb!
    INTERVIEWER: Do you think that works?
    CHILD: No. [laughs]
    INTERVIEWER: Do you think that's what they really do?
    CHILD: Yeah, sometimes.
    While children are given strict no-use lessons in school, other excerpts show a surprising sophistication in distinguishing between acceptable behavior for adults and children, along with an understanding of addiction:
    CHILD: Get drunk at a party is fine! Mothers Day, get drunk! I'm not saying for me...I'm just saying these are parents, right? If my mom gets drunk, I don't care! On Mothers Day she totally had a good time, but she didn't drive home. She felt sick in the morning, but she had a good time and that's fine. If I knew she was an alcoholic, I'd get her help! But, yeah, she gets drunk, but not every day! Not once a week!
    CHILD: She does have drinks though.
    INTERVIEWER: Is that what they teach you in the classes?
    CHILD: No. [in unison]
    CHILD: They teach that us that everything is bad!
    CHILD: Yup!
    CHILD: It's just flat out bad.
    Brown says examples like these show that children understand what they're being told by educators, but simply don't believe it. Says Brown, "The kids got the message exactly as it was intended -- and that was one of the primary reasons kids cite as to why it doesn't work. What they are told in school does not often match their real life experiences." The result, Brown says, is that "We're abusing the trust between young people and adults."

    "The Department of Education has a responsibilty to report it to the public"

    But since submitting the completed $100,000 report to Sacramento in March, Brown has heard nothing from the Department of Education. "This author apparently believes the Department of Education should be publishing this report," says Department consultant Jana Slater, "but the report was commissioned for the Department of Education for internal decision-making; it gives Joel Brown total responsibility for publishing and distributing it."

    Brown disagrees. Although he specifically included a clause in his contract giving him permission to use the data in articles for professional journals, he says the information is in public domain and should be available to educators. "Given that this research was mandated by the state, the Department of Education has a responsibilty to report it to the public," says Brown. "It was paid for by taxpayers; they should have the opportunity to judge whether or not the report was meaningful."

    This study was mandated by a 1990 California law that called for an overall evaluation of state drug education programs. Since 1991, California has spent a minimum of $400 million dollars on such programs, the funding coming from a variety of sources. Some money comes from Washington, some from the state, and other from tobacco taxes. Additional funding comes from the local community. Combining all sources, the total spent on drug education in California since 1991 is estimated at $1.6 billion, or roughly $84/year per student.

    Students who got A's and students who got F's all felt the same way about these programs

    Besides the debate over publication, Slater and another consultant at the Department question the validity of the study. "It's a small-scale study and not random," Slater says. "It only represents a small number of students. It's not what would typically be distributed to the [over] 1,000 school districts [in California]."

    Slater also charges Brown with bias. "The conclusions don't necessarily tie in with the data reported," she says. "The selection of the questions asked have been criticized as not soliciting information about what services were available, such as counseling... these researchers had a theoretical position that they were testing, and they selected the interviews that supported that position."

    Asked to respond to these comments, Brown replies, "The findings were the consensus of the research team. Individuals in the team felt the findings were much stronger. We stand by the methods we used. The 'at-risk' kids felt very similarly to kids who were members of the school community. Student at all grade levels, students who got A's and students who got F's all felt the same way about these programs. And that was similar for students all around the state. The student interviews and surveys both showed that their beliefs were more than teenage rebellion. The students showed a deep desire to make these programs more effective, and we share this desire.

    "By any standard, this has to stand as one of the largest-scale attempts to understand the effectiveness of drug education," he says. Brown adds that the Department approved all questions asked of the students, and monthly reports were filed with Sacramento as the study was being prepared.

    Brown also says that the interview results are supported by surveys of over 5,000 randomly-selected students across the state.

    As to Slater's remark that the study was not random, Brown explains that the Department-approved interview design was never intended to be such a study. "The principals picked these students out -- who are these principals going to pick? Probably the students most likely to say positive things about the program, and those results are only part of a much larger random survey which also says the programs are not positively affecting most students' drug decisions."

    "The kids who might have a true abuse problem are the first ones kicked out of the school system"

    And besides the debate over publication and the debate over bias, Slater has another objection: the report is out of date. Says Slater, "This was based on data from a previous program, in 1992 and 1993. That was the 'Drug Free Schools Initiative.' Now there's the 'Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities.' There's a new emphasis; the program now in effect has a much more comprehensive program."

    The name change is more than cosmetic. Until this year, most federal drug education money was funneled through the "Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986," which became the "Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994." With the new monicker came a vast increase in funding, with roughly $400 million available annually. Additional monies are available through the 1994 Crime Bill, which makes available $284 million next year, rising to $375 million by the end of the decade. With the largest -- and most expensive -- drug education program in the nation, California is likely to receive the lion's share of these funds.

    With the new requirements to include education on community violence and gangs, the controversial D.A.R.E. program also announced a new, comprehensive approach last year, although critics note little was actually changed from earlier versions. And California relies heavily upon D.A.R.E. for drug education, with the police-taught course in about 3 out of 4 California schools.

    Again asked to respond to Slater's claim of a new program, Brown sighs, "At first they said it wasn't methodologically sound -- which way is it?" Brown notes that claims of a new, comprehensive program seem odd, considering that Governor Wilson recently signed a bill ordering manditory expulsion for any student caught with weapons or drugs. "The kids who might have a true abuse problem are the first ones kicked out of the school system," says Brown. "And what is revealed in the student's own voices is that they understand that paradox."

    Brown also cites one of the observations in the report, which notes, "In addition to doubting the veracity of the information they receive, these results show that a majority of these middle and high school group students are aware of what a drug problem is; many question why the school is not helping them or their friends when they have such a problem."

    Albion Monitor December 3, 1995 (

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