Gangs, Drugs Infecting Nation' Public Schools

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Social Fabric Prevents Risky Behaviors

The ray of hope in the [CASA] survey results is the association between the strength of the family bond and substance use. Students who feel valued, supported, and connected at home are less likely than are those who do not to smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs, even in schools in which gang and drug activity are reported.

This finding confirms the importance of children having adults in their lives to help them gain self-control over their urges. The more that educators, administrators, and public health–minded pediatric clinicians begin to understand that it is the social fabric surrounding youth that helps them avoid risky behaviors, the more likely they will be to support efforts that foster connectedness between families and their offspring.

CARL C. BELL, M.D., is president and chief executive officer of Community Mental Health Council Inc. in Chicago, and professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


More than one-quarter of the nation's school students say drugs and gangs are rampant in their middle and high schools, and almost half report that they are aware of drugs being sold or used on school grounds, a Columbia University report shows.

The 15th annual "National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XV: Adolescents and Parents," conducted by the university's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), found that 5.7 million (27%) of the country's 12- to 17-year-old public school students attend schools where drugs are used, kept, or sold and where gangs are present.

The study also found that 32% of middle school students specifically said drugs are used, kept, or sold at their school—which represents a 39% increase since last year, when 23% of middle school students reported their schools to be "drug infected." It also found that about 66% of high school students reported attending drug-infected schools, which represents a slight but steady rise since 2006.

Gang activity, which was included in the survey for the first time this year, appears to be an important marker of drug activity. Compared with their counterparts, adolescents in schools with gangs were nearly twice as likely to report that drugs are used, kept, or sold on school grounds (30% vs. 58%), according to the report.

The gap between drug and gang presence reported at public schools vs. private and religious schools is wide, the authors observed, with 57% of adolescents at public schools and 22% at private or religious schools reporting drug activity at their schools, and 46% of adolescents in public schools and 2% in private or religious schools reporting gang presence.

"The gap between drug-free public schools, and drug-free private and religious schools has nearly doubled since its narrowest point in 2001," they wrote. "While the percent of adolescents who say they attend drug-free private and religious schools has roughly remained steady, the number of students who report attending a drug-free public school has decreased from 62% in 2001 to 43% in 2010, a decline of 31 percent."

These findings portend "a trajectory to tragedy for millions of children and families," Joseph A. Califano Jr. wrote in a statement accompanying the 2010 report. The CASA founder and chairman called the combination of gangs and drugs in school a "malignant cancer," referring to the attendant repercussions observed in the survey.

For example, compared with 12- to 17-year-olds at drug- and gang-free schools, those reporting drugs and gangs at their school were nearly 12 times more likely to have used tobacco (23% vs. 2%), three times more likely to have used alcohol (39% vs. 12%), and five times more likely to have used marijuana (21% vs. 4%), according to the report. Importantly, the associations between tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use and indicators of gangs and drugs in school remained significant and meaningful in logistic regression analyses controlling for socioeconomic status, the authors wrote.

The potential social impact of attending a school with gang and drug activity also was assessed. Relative to adolescents in drug- and gang-free schools, adolescents in gang- and drug-infected schools were nearly three times more likely to have friends who drink alcohol regularly (62% vs. 22%), nearly four times more likely to have friends who smoke marijuana (49% vs. 13%), six times more likely to know a friend or classmate who abuses prescription drugs (30% vs. 5%), and nearly five times more likely to know a friend or classmate who uses illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, or hallucinogens (50% vs. 11%).

This year, for the first time, the CASA investigators sought to evaluate the effect that an adolescent's relationship with his or her family has on his or her risk for smoking, drinking, and drug use.

To do this, they used factor analysis, scoring the adolescents on the strength of their family ties based on their responses to survey questions about their relationships with their parents, the degree to which they felt their parents listened to them, attendance at religious services, and the frequency of family dinners.

"The stronger the family ties, the less likely adolescents are to have used tobacco, alcohol or marijuana," the authors concluded. Compared with adolescents in families with strong family ties, those with weak family ties were four times more likely to have tried tobacco (20% vs. 5%); nearly three times more likely to have tried alcohol (35% vs. 12%); and four times more likely to have tried marijuana (20% vs. 5%).

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