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Drugs at School: Are Zero-Tolerance Policies Really Working?


Adopted over 20 years ago, zero-tolerance drug policies still dominate the conduct codes of most American public schools. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education reports an estimated 88 percent of schools enforce these policies.

Zero-Tolerance as a Deterrent

For years, zero-tolerance supporters have hailed these policies as strong drug deterrents, ensuring a safer learning environment. In other words, schools needed to be “tough” on drugs – without prejudice. However, many psychologists, educators, independent researchers and substance abuse professionals are now giving zero-tolerance drug policies an “F” in effectiveness.

A recent study published by the American Journal of Health showed students attending a zero-tolerance school were 1.6 times more likely to use marijuana than those peers attending schools without such policies.

Surveying the same students as 7th graders, then again as 9th graders, regarding drug use, the study measured the likelihood of drug use among students in Washington state and students in Victoria, Australia. Although the regions are similar in demographics, the school systems are worlds-apart in drug policy.

A Look at the Numbers

Overall, Washington schools employed a more punitively policy to drug use with frequent harsh penalties, while the Victoria schools typically offered a more comprehensive approach.

Comparison results include:

  • Washington students were almost 50 percent more likely to be completely expelled.
  • Washington schools required police involvement 70 percent of the time.
  • Discrediting “policy-as-a-deterrent” proponents, there was a 60 percent increase in the likelihood of drug use at Victoria zero-tolerance schools.
  • Victoria police involvement was only required 30 percent of the time.

Unintended Consequences 

Mandatory punishments seldom take into account a student’s history, and in some cases, the policy ignores the actual seriousness of the infraction. According to policy language, students may be suspended, expelled, forced to attend drug counseling and 12-Step meetings for possessing over-the-counter medication.

Although an extreme example, it’s an extreme consequence for a child who brings a Tylenol pill to school.

The Dropout Effect Raises Red Flags

This level of educational derailment can significantly increase dropout rates, and suspensions and expulsions may only accelerate delinquency in students who exhibit antisocial behavior.

One particular policy among all schools was associated with a 50 percent decrease in the likelihood of drug use – student/teacher meetings to discuss drug consequences.

While young students continue to learn inside—and outside—of the classroom, the study shows policies of communication were far more beneficial than policies of mandated punishment.
Additional Reading: What Every Parent Needs to Know about Adderall Addiction

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