During this back-to-school season, America's families spend countless hours getting their children ready for the new academic year -- buying backpacks and books, talking to teachers, planning car pools. In this rush, few of us spend enough time and energy ensuring that our children will receive the mentoring they need to live really healthy lives and achieve their dreams.
Research shows that schools do far more than teach the "4 R's"; they also play an important role in educating young people about the dangers of drugs. At the federal level, Secretary of Education Dick Riley has worked hard to ensure that school-based drug prevention is a national education priority. However, local drug prevention programs are determined at the community level. How much do you really know about your child's school-based drug education program?
Most school-based drug prevention programs are effective. A Cornell University study of 6,000 students in New York State found that the odds of drinking, smoking and using marijuana were 40 percent lower among students who participated in a school-based substance-abuse program in grades seven through nine than among their counterparts who did not.
Similarly, an assessment of Project STAR found that 42 participating schools in Kansas City, Mo., reported significantly less student use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana than control sites. To date, more than 50 independent evaluations have shown that students learn to resist drugs and violence through the DARE program's curriculum. Thanks in great part to school-based prevention programs, the recently released 1999 National Household Survey found that drug use among 12- to 17-year-olds is down 13 percent.
School-based drug prevention also helps improve a child's academic performance and attitude toward learning. Children ages 12 through 17 who have never used marijuana are six times less likely to cut classes and three times less likely to physically assault another person than peers who regularly use marijuana (past week).
According to the Department of Education's "Longitudinal Study," students who do not use drugs consistently report more positive school experiences, which translate into a better learning environment.
This same study also found that students who do not use drugs spend more time on their homework and on academic projects. By empowering young people to reject drugs, we also advance the primary purpose of educational system: helping children to learn.
However, while some programs clearly decrease student drug use rates, others are less effective. New research indicates that some of the school-based prevention programs that are not research-based fail to reduce drug use among adolescents.
Parents play a key role in ensuring that schools offer effective, research-based drug prevention. The following questions can be helpful in guiding parents' assessment of school drug prevention programs:
Do your local school-based drug education programs reach children from kindergarten through high school? If not, do they at least reach children during the critical middle school or junior high years?
Do the programs use interactive methods -- such as role-playing, group feedback and reinforcement -- to teach drug-resistance skills?
Do the programs promote anti-drug social norms, teach social competence (communication and assertiveness) and emphasize skills-training teaching methods?
Do the programs use a well-tested, standardized method that includes detailed lesson plans and student materials?
Do the programs promote school and community affiliation?
Parents should investigate their children's drug prevention program -- the program could be the difference between a successful student and a troubled teen.
In addition to helping ensure that school-based efforts are effective, parents need to play an active role at home. Parents remain the most influential two people in a child's decision not to use illegal substances.
Stay involved with your kids. Help them with their homework; arrange after-school activities; know who their friends are and what they're up to; encourage your kids to ask questions about drugs, and help them find the right answers. If you aren't talking to your children about drugs, the chances are that someone else is -- a peer who is using drugs, or the local drug pusher.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy is committed to ensuring that all schools provide effective drug prevention programs. I will be in Buffalo Tuesday to speak at the 12th annual Research Conference sponsored by the National Prevention Network.
Buffalo is an excellent place to hold this conference. Prevention programs in Buffalo are outstanding, thanks to three school-based programs: DARE, focusing on the health and legal consequences of drug use; EPIC, promoting pro-social behavior skills among students in the middle-schools; and the "Inner I" program, promoting age-specific social skills in grades K-2. In combination, these programs provide effective and comprehensive drug prevention for the city's students.
Parents who have additional questions about school-based drug prevention programs or effective anti-drug parenting activities can visit the following web sites: www.projectknow.com, www.freevibe.com or www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov. Parents also can search America Online using the key words: "drug help."
BARRY R. McCAFFREY is director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.