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Oakland School A Drug-Fight Model

Oakland Tribune, Sept. 30, 2005

by Josh Richman, Tribune Staff Writer

A new strategy that national drug-policy reform advocates say is a better means of keeping teenagers off drugs is partly based on a program used for years at Oakland High School.

The Drug Policy Alliance on Thursday unveiled "Beyond Zero Tolerance," a booklet providing a blueprint for overhauling how schools address teen drug use.

"Zero tolerance is the ideological basis for the practices we want to change — it's the mantra of the drug war as we know it, and it applies to education as much as it does to law enforcement," said booklet author Rodney Skager, professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the booklet, Skager writes that he was first introduced to the concept of "interactive drug education" by Charles Ries, who runs the UpFront drug program now in its eighth year at Oakland High School. Ries also was on Thursday's conference call unveiling the strategy.

"Essentially, our philosophy is that we create safe environments in which students can discuss their feelings about their using, their friends using, their families using or not using," he said. "They're hungry for a place to come and do this ... and they're far more likely to speak up when they need help."

The idea of "inoculating" children against future drug use with elementary school programs — such as the police-based Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, or the "science-based" anti-drug curricula now available from the federal government — is "highly unrealistic" and has not significantly affected youth drug use, Skager said.

"Education doesn't work like injecting a vaccine or taking a pill."

Skager said anti-drug education should be focused in high schools, where it is more relevant to children of the appropriate stage of mental and emotional development. And this education must be "interactive," he said, meaning it fosters a feeling of connection between students, teachers and the school. Today's "zero-tolerance" policies that threaten expulsion for drug use and boot users out of the classroom and onto the street only alienate students.

Threats must be replaced with "restorative practices" that teach kids about the effects drugs have on them, their families and their peers, and which give support and aid to children who have already used drugs, Skager said. Most of all, teenagers must receive honest information about drugs in a nonjudgmental atmosphere that lets them share their experiences and ask any questions, including a request for help, he said.

UpFront's Web site says it achieves these goals through a seven-tiered program that is constantly evolving according to evaluations given by the hundreds of Oakland students and teachers passing through it each year.

It includes a series of five in-class workshops on drug topics; ongoing, periodic work by classroom groups; support groups, both voluntary and mandatory; individual counseling; peer facilitator and educator training, to bring certain students into the planning process; mandatory monthly education groups for children already using drugs, alcohol or tobacco; and input from community organizations such as residential drug-treatment programs and anti-violence groups.

See "Beyond Zero Tolerance" at http://www.safety1st.org/pdf/Beyond—Zero—Tolerance.pdf. For more on UpFront, see http://www.upfrontprograms.org.


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