Why Static, One-Size-Fits-All School Drug-Prevention Programs Don't Work

Drug use by youth varies by geography, gender age and race, and it changes over time. Many of our school-based prevention programs don't reflect those realities.
by , | June 3, 2013

Often, administrators adopt school-based drug-prevention programs and continue to use them as long as they are funded, with little attention paid to their long-term effectiveness. Perhaps the best-known of these programs is DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which was developed in 1983 and still is in use in many schools across the country. DARE was evaluated throughout the 1980s and '90s, and while it generally was found to be efficient at educating youth, its effects were found to be short-lived.

The reason for this shortcoming could be that the program has changed little over time, even though empirical data show that drug use among youth is not static. The amounts and types of drugs used by children vary across decades, by geographic location and by social demographic factors, which suggests a need to continually revise drug-prevention programs and adapt them to their locations while moving away from one-size-fits all programs.

Some drugs, such as methamphetamines, are more commonly used in rural areas than in more urban communities. Crack cocaine use is reported more among juveniles in medium-sized and large cities than in rural counties. Over time, alcohol and marijuana have remained the drugs of choice among juveniles, but there has been a dramatic increase in misuse of prescription drugs in recent years, particularly in rural environments.

In addition to geographical variation, the types of drugs children are pressured to use have changed considerably since the 1980s and 1990s, when many drug-prevention programs like DARE were developed. The use of crack cocaine has declined overall, for example, while the misuse of prescription drugs materialized in the last 10 years and continues to increase.

Variations in drug-use patterns among youth also vary by gender, age and race. Survey results suggest that girls begin taking drugs later than boys. Over time, drug use among 8th-graders has remained relatively stable, whereas drug use among 12th graders has declined. African-American youth use inhalants in greater proportions that white children, while a larger proportion of Native American juveniles use methamphetamines as compared to Asian or Hispanic youth.

What all of this means is that if we wish to take a truly effective approach to drug use prevention, we need to be mindful of the variations and changes over time in children's drug-use behavior and continually alter program components to address emerging trends.

Among other steps, schools and communities need to make priorities of student self-report surveys and program evaluation. These methods can help schools track emerging trends and spikes in drug use, and also identify age and gender differences in drug use. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fund the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the Youth Tobacco Survey, resulting in state-level data on juvenile drug use. Many states also have local-level surveys that provide schools with a glimpse into drug use in their specific municipalities. Participation in these surveys allows schools and community organizations to track the outcomes of their drug-prevention interventions and can help schools refine program components to address shifting trends.

To achieve positive outcomes, schools should rely on evidence-based prevention programs that address the changing dynamics of juvenile drug use. Evidence-based programs that have received national approval for effectiveness can be found on the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Registry of Evidence-based Prevention Programs.

School-based drug-prevention programs are needed. As resources for prevention programs in schools decrease, it is imperative that the resources that remain be used effectively rather than allowing existing programs to continue unchanged or creating new one-size-fits-all programs based on local anecdotes and myths.

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