Drug Infested Schools?: CASA Survey at Odds with Other Data
> 8/16/2007 12:30:17 PM

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University issued a press release today to announce new results from a survey they've administered. Entitled the "National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XII: Teens and Parents," CASA's survey evaluated the ideas and feelings that both students and parents had with regards to drugs and alcohol. As the release's headline demonstrates, their findings were not positive:
  • Eleven million high school students (80 percent) and five million middle school students (44 percent) attend drug-infested schools, meaning that they have personally witnessed illegal drug use, illegal drug dealing, illegal drug possession, students drunk and/or students high on the grounds of their school.
  • At least once a week on their school grounds, 31 percent of high school students (more than four million) and nine percent of middle school students (more than one million) see illegal drugs used, sold, students high and/or students drunk.
  • Since 2002 the proportion of students who attend schools where drugs are used, kept or sold has jumped 39 percent for high school students and 63 percent for middle school students.
These statistics paint a far different picture from that of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has, along with the University of Michigan, conducted the "Monitoring the Future" study for each of the last 33 years. That study, which aims to evaluate teenage drug use as opposed to attitudes and ideas, has marked significant advances over the last decade in terms of reduced drug use across many different areas. The most recent survey found that there had been a 23.2% decrease in the use of all illicit drugs by teenagers over the last five years. That's not to say that everything has been coming up roses though, as Monitoring the Future found that prescription drug abuse remains a problem area as does recreational use of over-the-counter medications.

While these two studies appear to be at odds, with one trumpeting drug infested schools and the other extolling improvements, the reality of the situation is that each study is looking at the same situation through different lenses. Monitoring the Future, often considered the benchmark in national drug surveys, asks teens very specific questions about drug use: have you ever used this drug? When was the last time? Etc. On the other hand, CASA's survey probed broad feelings about drug use in schools and communities.

The term "drug-infested," so catchy and alarmist, distorts the picture of these results. While a very large percentage of those surveyed said that "they have personally witnessed illegal drug use, illegal drug dealing, illegal drug possession, students drunk and/or students high on the grounds of their school," those same students may not consider their schools to be drug infested. In fact, it's quite reasonable that the same dwindling percentages of students seen using drugs in the Monitoring the Future survey are the same students witnessed using, selling, or possessing drugs on school grounds. It would seem that CASA is leaning heavily on a survey of just over a 1,000 families, small in comparison to MTF's 50,000 students, and in so doing they are sensationalizing the handful of data points that convey a message of dread.

CASA Chairman and President Joseph Califano, Jr. issued a statement with today's release, saying:

“Too many of our nation’s high and middle schools have become marijuana marts and pill palaces. Parents should wake up to this reality and realize more likely than not, your teen is going to school each day in a building where drug use, sale and possession is as much a part of the curriculum as math or English and do something about it. For many of our middle and high school students, school days have become school daze.”

When taken in context with his own group's results, this seems like an extreme statement, but when we consider the trends we have seen with the MTF survey, Califano comes off as nothing short of histrionic. Monitoring the Future has shown that by and large students are more aware of the dangers of drugs than ever before, and usage trends are generally on the decline. CASA's survey has found some interesting data, particularly in the realm of how student's perceive those students in their school who use drugs (hint: they're the "cool kids"), but otherwise, it would seem that the CASA survey may be trying to hard to present a gloomy picture where at worst it should be ambivalent.

There are drugs in schools around the U.S., and parents and administrators need should be aware of those realities. But on the whole, the trends in our schools with regards to drugs, have been positive, and it would seem that much of the education and prevention efforts have led to improvements. As a nation we do need to remain focused on the issue and constantly look for ways to improve, but there is little value in overstating the problem and inflating realities.

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