Stop Pointing Guns at Our Kids


As the mother of a teenager, I share the outrage experienced by parents of Stratford High School students, who were recently terrorized by Goose Creek, South Carolina police. In an effort to purge the school of drugs, law enforcement was called in by the administration. After rounding up the students, pointing guns at them, and searching their lockers, no drugs were found. The students, however, were scared to death.

The use of weapons on the Stratford High School campus is testament to the failure of our efforts to stop young people from using drugs, and the frustration experienced by school officials.

No parent wants their teenager to use drugs. We should understand, however, that teenage experimentation is not surprising in a country that aggressively advertises alcohol and anti-depressants on prime time TV, rendering these and other kinds of drugs a part of American culture. Teens who experiment with alcohol and other drugs are not necessarily bad kids, nor are their parents necessarily failing to do their job. It's just that in reality, America is not drug free, and neither are our teenagers.

Although the incident in Goose Creek was isolated, it was no more successful than any other attempt to keep young people from experimenting with drugs in the last 20 years. As parents, it's one thing to read about our country's War on Drugs. It really hits home, however, when our own children are subjected to the violence that has characterized this failed policy.

We tried "just say no," which entered our vernacular in 1980 when marijuana use had already peaked and was on the decline. Still, with Reagan's new "tough on crime" posture and the First Lady's pet project, anti-drug funding (and sentiment) increased sharply.

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program reached children in 80 percent of school districts across the country.

The private sector got involved in the crusade, with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America filling the airwaves with images and warnings. Who could forget the egg-in-the-frying-pan "this is your brain" commercials?

By the early 1990s, an American teenager had to be living under a rock to have missed anti-drug messages.

But then a strange shift began to occur. Despite universal school-based prevention programs, anti-drug ads, intolerance of illegal drugs, and a "lock 'em up" attitude, national surveys indicated that teenage use of alcohol and other drugs was increasing.

Teens, it seemed, were becoming bored, rather than frightened, by fear-based messages about drugs, and bone-tired of admonishments to abstain. Obviously the message wasn't effective, with half of all teens experimenting with illegal drugs, and 80 percent trying alcohol before graduating from high school.

As a response to increased alcohol and other drug use among teenagers, and to let them know we meant business, "zero tolerance" policies were implemented in secondary schools across the country. Students were regularly suspended, or even expelled for possession or use of a range of substances, including Tylenol and Midol. Drug-sniffing dogs were unleashed on campuses in an effort to locate drugs, and to further "send a message."

The tentacles of the growing urine testing industry reached teenagers when the testing of athletes became de rigeur in the mid-1990s. Recently the Supreme Court ruled that student drug testing is legal for all extracurricular activities, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy is pushing the testing of all secondary school students (to the delight of the drug testing industry, and with no evidence that it actually works to deter drug use). For many American teenagers, the Fourth Amendment of our Bill of Rights has become an historical artifact. Not to mention that in America we are all supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.

But there is another way. While government agencies continue to devise increasingly harsh policies to no avail, real parents in the real world living with real teenagers, myself among them, are looking at pragmatic alternatives to zero tolerance.

Today's parents, like those in Goose Creek, are skeptical of policies that demonize and frighten their teenagers without ensuring their health, well-being, and safety. If total abstinence isn't a realistic alternative, we want our teens to be educated about drugs by giving them scientific, honest information, not exaggerated claims designed (unsuccessfully) to scare them. We want school policies that protect students without jeopardizing the future of those who make immature mistakes. We want counseling and support, rather than humiliation, suspension, expulsion, or, as in the case of Stratford High, violence.

Our children's safety should be top priority when it comes to educating them about drugs. Pointing guns at their heads is not the answer.

Marsha Rosenbaum, PhD, directs the Safety First drug education project at the Drug Policy Alliance in San Francisco.

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