Study: Suspensions, Zero Tolerance Policies Don’t Curb Drug Use


Data from the International Youth Development Survey, which collected representative samples of 7th and 9th grade students in Washington State and Victoria, Australia, found that “students attending schools with suspension policies for illicit drugs were 1.6 times more likely than their peers in schools without such policies to use marijuana in the next year.”

The data was used in a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, writes Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post, and the same result occurred for the student body as a whole — not only for the suspended kids.

The two places surveyed were demographically similar, but had different approaches to drug use among students. In 70% of Washington schools, police are brought into student drug possession events, while in Australia, less than 30% are dealt with by police intervention. Also, Washington students who are caught with drugs are more likely, by far, to receive mandatory suspensions, and around 50% face expulsion.

Not only did disciplinary school policies not have any significant effect on usage, but even more surprising is the fact that suspending students, in 60% of the cases, actually increased drug usage at that school even if kids were not one of the students who were suspended.

“That was surprising to us,” said co-author Richard Catalano in a press release. “It means that suspensions are certainly not having a deterrent effect. It’s just the opposite.” And according to Catalano and his colleagues, suspensions “related to unintended negative outcomes for the suspended student, such as disengagement from school, delinquency or antisocial behavior, smoking, and alcohol and drug use.”

Naturally, it is possible that other unknown factors may increase pot use at schools which use punitive consequences for drug related activities. However, the researchers did find a factor that seemed to decrease the possibility of drug use, and that was student-teacher interactions. When students were instructed to discuss the matter with their teachers, the action associated with a 50% decrease in the probability of marijuana use in the future.

“Zero tolerance” policies are used at many schools. In a Virginia school, an 11-year-old student was suspended for an entire year because of a substance found in his backpack which, in fact, was discovered not to be marijuana. The student has been suffering from panic attacks and depression. Mandatory suspensions and zero-tolerance policies do not seem to have data in their favor.

The moral, according to Catalano, is “to reduce marijuana use among all students, we need to ensure that schools are using drug policies that respond to policy violations by educating or counseling students, not just penalizing them,” reports Julia Glum, writing for the International Business Times.

In an article in the East Bay Express by David Downs, the study’s conclusion is wrapped up in this statement:

“Schools may reduce student marijuana use by delivering abstinence messages, enforcing non-use policies, and adopting a remedial approach to policy violations rather than use of suspensions.”

Researchers have concluded that, especially as cannabis becomes legalized for adult use, punitive policies in schools must be revised in accordance with the effectiveness of such policies.

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