by Anita Revilla, MA, and Christie L. Goodman, APR • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 1997

Christie Goodman, APRIt seems obvious that a school should be a safe environment for students. Yet the reality is that many schools are not safe havens for children. The problem is so widespread that the sixth goal of Goals 2000 addresses drug use and violence in schools specifically: “By the year 2000, every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.” It includes seven objectives for schools to accomplish:

  • a firm policy on drug and alcohol use;
  • collaborative planning with parents, businesses, governmental and community organizations;
  • a local policy against violence and weapons;
  • a drug and alcohol prevention education program for children;
  • a drug and alcohol curriculum in health education;
  • supportive community-based teams; and
  • the elimination of sexual harassment (National Education Goals Panel, 1996).

Adolescent Drug Use Has Increased

Unlike previous administrations, the Clinton administration has directed more attention to drug abuse prevention rather than fighting a drug war against users and suppliers. “Our number one priority is reducing the demand for illegal drugs by our kids,” said Pancho Kinney, spokesman for Gen. Barry McCaffrey who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (García, 1997).

To this effect, officials have targeted schools and monitored the programs that address the seven objectives mentioned above. They have also brokered partnerships between non-profit campaigns and the private sector to generate awareness of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

As a result, since 1985 overall drug use is down by 50 percent and cocaine use is down by 75 percent among adults (Burke, 1997). That is 10 million fewer users.

Illegal drugs are used by 12.8 million people in the United States. This includes 9.8 million marijuana users, 1.5 million cocaine users, and 600,000 heroin addicts. Illegal drug use occurs among members of every ethnic and socio-economic group in the United States (García, 1997).

The current major concern is that adolescent drug use has been increasing since 1992. In fact, use of some drugs by teens has more than doubled. A nationwide survey of 141,077 students in junior high and high school shows an increase in drug use, particularly for students ages 11 to 14 years old (PRIDE, 1997).

Thomas Gleaton, president of the Parent’s Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE), the Atlanta-based organization that conducts the survey annually, added:

Senior high drug use may have stalled, but it is stalled at the highest levels we have measured in 10 years. Until we see sharp declines in use at all grade levels, there will be no reason to rejoice (1997).

Other data indicates that 25 percent of 12th graders are using illegal drugs monthly, compared to 14 percent in 1992. Illegal drug use is 23 percent among 10th graders, up from 11 percent in 1992; and it is 15 percent among eighth graders, up from 7 percent in 1992 (Burke, 1997).

In Texas, 20 percent of fourth graders from low-income families used a substance (tobacco, alcohol, inhalants, marijuana) in the past school year. The percentage is slightly less for students from families at other income levels. However the trend switches for older students. In grades eight through 12, the percentage use by students in low-income families is less than that of students in families of other income levels. Substance abuse by 12th grade students reaches almost 80 percent (TCADA, 1996).

Preventing drug use among young people also helps reduce crimes and violence, HIV/AIDS, school dropouts, teenage pregnancy, teenage suicide and health care costs (Burke, 1997).

Research indicates that there is a direct link between an increase in anti-drug attitudes and a decline in drug use. In fact, when “perceived risks” and “peer disapproval” toward drug abuse are high, drug abuse by young people goes down. This is true among all demographic characteristics and rural vs. urban areas (Burke, 1997).

Gen. McCaffrey states that a key to fighting the rise of drug abuse among teens is parental involvement and parents educating their children about the dangers of drugs. Teens who say they have learned a lot about the risks of drugs from their parents are half as likely to use marijuana as those who say they learned nothing about drugs from their parents. Yet, only one in four teens learn much from their parents about the risks of drugs.

According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, nine out of 10 current adult users of cocaine started using drugs as teenagers and one-half started before their 16th birthday (Burke, 1997).

James Burke, chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, summarizes the findings: “The data shows that if we can help our kids get through their teenage years without trying drugs, they are likely never to use drugs as adults” (1997).

Adolescent Violence Has Increased

The U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey data show that an estimated 2.7 million violent crimes take place annually either at school or near schools (NCES, 1996).

In a national longitudinal study on adolescent health, one in four students indicated that they had been a victim of violence, and one in eight reported that they had carried a weapon over the previous 30 days (JAMA, 1997).

Results of a 1993 survey conducted for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) suggest that unsafe conditions at school are a reality for most US students. Half of sixth through 12th grade students personally witnessed some type of crime or victimization. One in eight students reported being directly victimized at school. The survey defined “victimization” as direct personal experiences of threats or harm as well as knowledge or witness of crime or incidents of bullying at school (NCES, 1996).

Witnessing incidents of bullying, physical attack or robbery did not vary significantly for students of different grade levels. However, students’ worries about victimization decreased after middle school. More elementary (29 percent) and middle school students (34 percent) said they worried about becoming victims at school than did high school students (20 percent) (NCES, 1996).

The NCES study found that a greater percentage of students at schools containing 600 or more students than those attending schools of fewer than 300 students reported knowledge of crime or threats at school and witnessing crime. But, there was no difference in worry about crime or in actual victimization for students at larger schools (NCES, 1996).

Exposure to crime and threats at school crosses racial and ethnic boundaries. Worry and victimization did not differ by student’s race or school racial composition (NCES, 1996).

In Texas, schools reported decreases in the number of assaults against students (down 5.8 percent) and against teachers and staff (down 33.8 percent) between the 1994-95 and 1995-96 school years (TEA, 1996). They reported increases in acts of vandalism:

  • Acts of vandalism or criminal mischief against school property rose 124 percent.
  • Acts of vandalism or criminal mischief against student property rose 263 percent.
  • Acts of vandalism or criminal mischief against teacher or staff property rose 125 percent.

The number of firearms and other weapons confiscated has gone down 40 percent, and school-related gang violence has remained steady in Texas.

Schools Are Resorting to Removing Students

Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code details the discipline, law and order regulations enforceable for safe schools to exist (TEA, 1994). The law outlines some reasons that students can be removed from their regular classroom settings:

  • Offense of assault or terroristic threat.
  • Use or selling of illegal drugs, alcohol, and/or abusable glue and paint.
  • Public lewdness.
  • Retaliation against any school employee.

Students may also be removed for violating the student code of conduct that is created by individual local school districts at their discretion. A student may be expelled if he or she

  • uses, exhibits or possesses a firearm, an illegal knife, a club or a weapon;
  • engages in aggravated assault, kidnapping, criminal mischief, murder, felony or indecency with a child; or
  • continues to violate the district’s student code of conduct (TEA, 1994).

The Texas Education Agency released its Chapter 37 Safe School Survey results in October 1996. This survey documents the number of students referred to disciplinary alternative education programs and mandatory offense expulsions in the 1995-96 school year. The data represents several different geographic areas including major urban, major suburban, central city, independent town, rural and non-metro districts. According to the data, 70,958 students were referred to alternative programs, and 5,601 students were expelled (TEA, 1996).

One concern that arises with a close examination of the findings is the disproportionate numbers of certain students (regarding ethnicity and district type) that are being referred to disciplinary alternative education programs.

Hispanic students in major urban districts were referred to disciplinary alternative education programs four times more often than were White students, and African American students were referred almost three times more often than were White students (TEA, 1996).

Another finding that raises questions is the fact that discretionary reasons under the student codes of conduct were the most frequent reasons for students’ referrals to alternative programs. An overwhelming 73,302 referrals out of a total of 99,381 were reported as discretionary (some students were referred more than once) (TEA, 1996).

In order for alternative education programs to achieve positive outcomes, the number of students in disciplinary alternative education programs must decrease, and the number of days spent in the alternative settings should be kept to a minimum. These students should receive educational counseling and other support services needed to cause true behavioral change and conflict resolution. The law states that the quality of education in alternative programs must be equal to that of the regular school settings, and high standards must be maintained for all students.

A careful study of student outcomes in disciplinary alternative education programs will be needed, especially regarding district type, race and ethnicity (see “Alternative Education Programs”).

We must combat the so-called “culture of alternative education,” in which we discard all unwanted students into alternative settings far and away from the “good” students. Administrators can also choose to stay away from suspending and expelling students for discretionary reasons and move toward other solutions for maintaining discipline on school campuses.

For example, the NCES survey found that appearing “older than most” in class was associated with emotional distress and suicidal thoughts and behaviors among high schools students. It was associated with substance use and an earlier age of sexual debut among junior and senior high students. Repeating a grade in school was also associated with emotional distress in junior and high school and with tobacco use among junior high students (NCES, 1996).

Avoiding violence and drug abuse is most effective when the causes of such behaviors are examined. Removal of students considered disruptive is a punitive measure. Schools and students will benefit much more significantly by undertaking preventive measures. A step that has been taken by many schools, and for which IDRA offers training and technical assistance, is conflict resolution and peer mediation (see “I Am What I Am”).

Did You Know?

20% of high school students carried a weapon during the past 30 days.

24% of high school students considered suicide in the past year.

35% of high school students are current cigarette smokers.

25% of 12th graders use illegal drugs monthly.

Sources Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Partnership for a Drug-Free America.


Burke, James. Unpublished presentation. (New York, NY: Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 1997).

García, James E. “US Drug Battleground,” Vista magazine (October 1997).

Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). “Protecting Adolescents from Harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health,” Internet posting (September 10, 1997).

National Center for Education Statistics. “Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools: An Action Guide.” Internet posting (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, September 1996).

National Education Goals Panel. National Education Goals Report – Summary Guide: Building the Best. (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, September 1996).

Parent’s Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE). “Junior High Students Continue to Show Increases in Drug Use,” Internet posting (October 28, 1997).

Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA). “Texas School Survey of Substance Use Among Students” (Austin, Texas: Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, 1996).

Texas Education Agency. Briefing Book on Senate Bill 1: 74th Texas Legislature (Austin, Texas: TEA, 1994).

Texas Education Agency. 1996 Chapter 37 Safe School Survey Results (Austin, Texas: TEA, 1996).

Anita Revilla is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Christie Goodman is the IDRA communications manager. Comments and questions may be sent to them via e-mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]