Last week, officials at El Camino High School in San Diego felt the unwanted glare of the media spotlight when the story of their bizarre scared-straight hoax hit the national news wire. A uniformed police officer had informed 20 classrooms that several students had been killed in car crashes over the weekend. According to school officials, the ruse was intended to teach a lesson about the consequences of drunk driving. Did the administration think students would take the news lightly?
After hours of students' hysteria and uncontrollable weeping in the hallways, chaos broke out after officials revealed that the deaths were all staged. "They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized," a guidance counselor who organized the exercise told the Associated Press, "That's how they get the message."
This story illustrates something that has become a core principle of modern prevention techniques: Scare tactics do not work and are likely to backfire. While most anti-drug messaging has moved past the oversimplified "this is your brain on drugs," all too often well-intended lies and half-truths get in the way of reaching young people. This incident is an extreme example of our knee-jerk urges to protect teenagers by terrifying them.
Instead of tuning in young people to their prevention message, over-the-top scare tactics generally foster resentment and oppositional behavior. During the assembly that sought to drive home the dangers of drunk driving, some students held up posters reading, "Death is real. Don't play with our emotions." For many, the only lesson learned from the experience was: adults cannot be trusted to tell the truth when it comes to alcohol and other drugs.
The school's misguided approach flies in the face prevention best practices. The peer-reviewed literature has established that students' sense of connectedness and belonging to school enhances resilience; it is the most important factor in promoting healthy behaviors. Outright lies shatter trust between students and teachers at school, hindering open communication and damaging an essential component of a safe and rewarding learning environment.
Instead of employing methods that destroy their credibility, schools should employ reality-based approaches to drug education that foster open dialogue around the risks and consequences of drug use. Honest information de-mythologizes alcohol and other drug use and the romance of transgression against authority. Open discussion in classrooms presents opportunities to identify and assist students struggling with substance abuse.
Parents also grapple with how best to approach issues concerning alcohol and other drugs with their teenagers. A growing number are turning away from fear-based messages and are teaching their teens how to identify and handle problems -- if and when they occur -- using critical thinking and how to find help and support. Many parents who strongly encourage abstinence from drinking also talk with their teens about designated drivers, carrying cab fare and calling for rides if ever faced with the prospect of getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking.
We need to raise awareness about the consequences of substance use, but we can be honest with our youth without undermining their trust in us. Encouraging positive relationships and fostering a nurturing school environment is central to this effort. Schools should eliminate, rather than create, sources of alienation and conflict between young people and adults at schools. While scare tactics may be driven by the best of intentions, our young people need and deserve better.