The first “realistic” drug education program is tested in New York
Abstinence isn’t realistic. Critical thinking is.
After offering former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” approach to drugs for decades, American schools may finally have a more effective alternative. A pilot program for a new form of drug education has been implemented for the first time among high school students in New York.
The program, known as Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens, was developed by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and which implemented a pilot version of the new curriculum at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan last month.
At the core of the “Safety First” approach is the idea that effective drug education goes beyond abstinence and teaches students critical thinking approaches to drug use.
“We designed this curriculum using a similar philosophy to modern sex education,” says Sasha Simon, the Safety First Program Manager. “Fundamental to our approach is harm reduction, which acknowledges that as much as we would like for young people not to use drugs, we know that some of them will. We want to give young people accurate information and concrete strategies to keep them safe.”
Among these strategies are a series of skills which are taught to students enrolled in their school’s health education program. The curriculum contains 14 lesson plans that meet National Health Education Standards.
During the course of the program, students are taught to think critically about the information they are given when it comes to drugs and alcohol. They learn to evaluate the potential harms and risks involved in drug use and are also taught the impacts of drug policy.
Students are encouraged to examine their states Good Samaritan laws, which prevent prosecution for those who report overdoses to the police and are taught how to recognize symptoms and react in the event of an overdose.
While the new curriculum is modeled off of current sex ed programs, it was inspired by Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum when she wrote a letter to her son encouraging openness between parents and their children when it comes to drug use. As an extension of the program, the DPA also offers a guide for parents.
The “Safety First” approach offers an alternative to the most popular form of drug education which focuses on teaching students to avoid peer pressure. Over the years that approach has been implemented in the form of Drug Abuse Resistance Education, popularly known as D.A.R.E. This abstinence-centered curriculum was developed by anti-drug advocates at the Los Angeles Police Department in 1983 and consists of police officers visiting classrooms to discourage drug use.
A 2009 analysis of the D.A.R.E. program, in which researchers at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Central Florida examined D.A.R.E. Twenty separate studies, found that the program was just as effective as if the students had never received any intervention.
By contrast, the “Safety First” approach is integrated into a student’s regular schedule and taught by the same teachers that would oversee their regular health courses.
The DPA says that close to 90 ninth graders took part in the first round of the program which ran from March 5th to the 29th. It is now up to the examiners at the Research Foundation of the City University of New York to study the effectiveness of the “Safety First” program and determine how it will be implemented when students return to class in the fall of 2018.
According to the National Institutes of Health, teen drug and alcohol use has been on the decline in recent years. In 2016, the Monitoring the Future survey found that monthly marijuana use among eighth-graders dropped to 5.4 percent from 6.5 the previous year, while weekly use fell to 0.7 percent.
Among high school seniors, however, higher rates of marijuana use have been found in states that have legalized medical use.