Zero Tolerance Losing Its Luster

Zero Tolerance Losing Its Luster
Posted by CN Staff on September 08, 2002 at 15:07:54 PT
By Paula Sheil, Record Staff Writer
Source: Stockton Record
The recent announcement by the nation's drug czar that treating teenagers for drug abuse is preferable to tossing them out of school under a "zero tolerance" policy signals a change in attitude by the federal government that perhaps punishment is not a deterrent for drug use. A report by John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Policy Control, may be a startling development for some school districts that enforce a "zero tolerance" policy. But for local educators, the new stance has little effect on their existing drug policies. 
Stockton Unified School District adopted a "zero tolerance approach to serious offenses" in 1999. Selling drugs gets a student a mandatory expulsion, but first-time pot offenders get counseling and rehabilitation through the schools first and through local agencies if the need is more severe. "We already are recommending rehabilitation and have written plans for kids who we learn are involved in drugs," said Dianne Barth, SUSD's community relations officer. Walters' report comes on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 ruling in June that broadens the authority of school districts to drug-test students who participate in extracurricular activities. The decision extends the power of districts that already drug-test student athletes, do random backpack searches or bring drug-sniffing dogs on campus. That decision gave schools a free hand to test nearly 7 million American high-school students who participate in everything from French and chess clubs to academic decathlons. The court stopped short of allowing random tests for any student, but several justices said they would vote to do so, if given the opportunity. While Walters endorses the ruling, calling it an "effective tool," he also expressed caution that expulsions based on drug testing "may not be legal." He noted in his booklet, "What You Need to Know About Drug Testing in Schools," that drug testing carries risks. And harsh punishment may not be the answer for a positive drug test. Kicking students out of school without treatment can create "drug-using dropouts," an even bigger problem, Walters said in his 18-page report. "The goal is to say we believe we can do a better job of making kids healthy." The guide says schools should "proceed with caution" when testing students for drugs, making sure they "have a good idea of precisely what drugs their students are using" before testing. The Stockton district, the largest in San Joaquin County with more than 39,000 students, is not considering such a program, said SUSD's Barth. "We talked about (drug-testing students in extracurricular activities) when it first came out, and frankly, there's a lot of other issues on the burner right now. It would take a whole other program, and (testing) would mean removing children from programs that could help them," she said. The policy is similar in Tracy schools, said Rebecca Frame, the director of student services. "We know that the term 'zero tolerance' is bantered about," Frame said. "We have zero tolerance for the offense, but we have great tolerance for children who make a mistake." A first-time marijuana offense is considered "experimental use" and results in a five-day suspension, a nine-week drug information program, nine weeks of social probation, or suspension from student activities, and community service, she said. While the national drug director has offered guidelines for handling student drug users, final decisions on what to do remain in the hands of school districts. Dan Langan, an Education Department spokesman, said, "The guide is a tool, and it's a helpful tool, but how a district and a school choose to implement any recommendations in the guide is up to them." Most school districts have not had time since the ruling to debate the issue extensively or to decide whether they would subject their choirs, debate teams or other groups to drug testing. But Edward Darden, counsel to the National School Boards Association, said school boards "strongly oppose" blanket drug testing of all students. Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said her group would back the new guidelines. "That's what we would endorse, helping kids, not simply punishing them," she said. "It doesn't do anybody any good just to take a drug test and kick the kid out of school. Where's he going to go? It doesn't solve anyone's problem and may in fact worsen it." The federal drug office released the guidelines a day after it had released a separate report in Miami showing a decline in first-time marijuana users last year. While that study found that fewer adolescents are first-time marijuana users than in previous years, it said those who are users risk succumbing to long-term drug addiction. "Marijuana is not the soft drug," Walters said, adding that government, community agencies and parents must marshal their powers to prevent and treat marijuana abuse. According to the study, 62 percent of cocaine users ages 26 or older were first-time marijuana users by the age of 14. The idea that marijuana leads to harder drugs was challenged by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, based in Washington, which said only one out of every 104 first-time marijuana users ever uses heroin or cocaine. In California, 44 percent of high-school juniors have experimented with marijuana and San Joaquin County comes close at 43 percent. Less than 6 percent of high-school juniors reported the use of inhalants, cocaine or crack, methamphetamine, LSD or other illegal drugs, according to the 1999 California Healthy Kids Survey. Combined county numbers for the 2001 CHKS survey have not yet been disclosed, but a study released Friday says there's a slight increase in regular pot users. Use nationwide went from 9.7 percent of young people ages 12 to 17 to 10.8 percent, according the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. After surveying about half of the juniors in three Tracy high schools in 2001, the CHKS reported that 44 percent of the 11th-grade students had tried pot, up from 40 percent in 1999. Ninth-grade students surveyed remained constant at 21 percent, which reflects the national trend. Still, that's not enough to ramp up a costly, randomized drug testing program for students who otherwise are not suspect, said Joan Stone, the director of prevention services for Tracy Unified schools. "We are not just trying to nail kids but to prevent the use when they are at school so they can learn and to prevent a lifelong habit that can derail their lives," Stone said. Three years ago, Tracy Unified implemented a random drug-testing program for its athletes but dropped it after similar policies began to draw heat in the courts and because of the prohibitive cost. Regarding further testing, Tracy "will probably wait and see how other districts work out the details," Frame said. In the 1990s, "zero tolerance" swept the nation because of drug deaths, school shootings, terrorist threats made by students and an increase in weapons on school grounds. Between 1992 to 1998, Lodi Unified expelled 323 students for first-time drug offenses, as well as carrying firearms, brandishing a knife, selling drugs, causing serious injury or sexual assault. A state attorney general's opinion issued in 1997 said that districts could not have "zero tolerance" beyond the authority that the California Education Code authorized, so Lodi revised its position. Students could not be expelled for first-time pot use unless the district also could show a "continuing danger to the student or others," said Bob Gire, the district coordinator of child welfare and attendance. For the past three years, Lodi has only expelled 34 students. "When we have a first-time drug offense, it is a five-day suspension, notice to law enforcement and a recommendation for substance-abuse assessment," Gire said. How county schools already treat drug offenses on campus varies little from district to district whether or not the term "zero tolerance" is used in board policies. Selling drugs gets a student expelled, as does cocaine or meth possession; but a first-time pot offense of holding less than an ounce generates referrals to treatment and rehabilitation programs, some on campus, some through community agencies. Note: Local school districts already flexible with first-time pot users.The Associated Press contributed to this report. Source: Record, The (CA)Author: Paula Sheil, Record Staff WriterPublished: Sunday, September 8, 2002 Copyright: 2002 The RecordContact: editor recordnet.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:NORML Drug Testing Guidelines Issued, Don't Punish Teen Drug Users Marijuana Use Linked to Adult Dependence
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