Today's pop-quiz question: Do teens who have dropped out of school use drugs and alcohol more than teens who remain in school? Until now, there has been no way to answer that question with any certainty because no survey of dropouts had ever been conducted. That is why my office joined with three other state departments—of Education, Health Services, and Alcohol and Drugs Programs—to conduct the state's first-ever survey of drug and alcohol use among teen dropouts. The findings of this comprehensive survey were released earlier this month.
For the past ten years, my office has conducted a statewide survey of alcohol and drug use by students in grades 7, 9 and 11. Until now, the survey reached no farther than the classroom. That is why, for the first time ever, we decided to conduct two surveys: The Biennial Student Survey and a Dropout Survey. With these two surveys, we were finally able to test assumptions and make comparisons between dropouts and students.
Not surprisingly, we found that dropouts reported using drugs at rates which were at least one-and-a-half times the student rates. The differences between dropouts and students increased with level and frequency of use. We also found that student surveys alone underestimated the extent of the substance abuse problem.
Unfortunately—but again not surprisingly—we found that school dropouts are more involved in other problem behavior than their in-school peers. The extent of these problems are so serious that they cannot be overlooked or underestimated.
Among the disturbing findings:
• Dropouts were 1.7 times more likely to use marijuana than their in-school counterparts (66.8% vs. 40%).
• Dropouts were three times more likely to use methamphetamines than their in-school counterparts (31.6% vs. 10.1%).
• Dropouts were five times more likely to use cocaine or crack than their in-school counterparts (27.5% vs. 4.9%).
Additionally, daily use of drugs and alcohol by dropouts was a great deal higher than students. For instance, dropouts reported daily use of marijuana five times that of the student rate.
We also learned that dropouts were more likely to use drugs and alcohol at an earlier age:
• 30.5% of dropouts reported that they had been intoxicated from alcohol by the age of 12, while only 16.4% of students reported the same.
• 38.5% of dropouts had used tobacco by age 12, compared to 20.8% of students.
• 29.5% of dropouts reported trying an illegal drug by the age of 12, compared to 8.3% of students.
The survey results also indicated that teens who had dropped out of school were involved in more criminal activity, including violence, than students who stayed in school. Dropouts were more likely to sell drugs, be arrested on drug-related offenses or commit crimes to get drugs. We saw that dropouts were more involved in gang activity, physical fights, and carrying or using weapons.
What does all of this mean? At the very least, this information should send an urgent wake-up call to society. We should be alarmed by this correlation between drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out of school and destructive behavior. We must work together to help the increasing number of at-risk juveniles before they reach the point of dropping out of school. Once they reach that point, they are in even greater danger of becoming involved in drugs, joining gangs, becoming juvenile delinquents and thereby becoming an even greater burden on society.
We should be troubled, also, by the indications that in-school teens continue to use drugs and alcohol. While they did not report as much use as dropouts, the bottom line is California students are using drugs and alcohol at alarming rates.
It's clear that we need to address dual problems: teen drug use and school dropouts. Only by combating one will we defeat the other. While I don't pretend to have all of the answers, I will venture to say that this survey clearly shows why arguments for drug legalization are dangerous. It is also fair to say that the current cultural attitude by some elements of Hollywood and others to downplay the dangers of drug use only adds to the problem. It reinforces the idea that drug use is "cool" or "acceptable." By changing our attitudes toward what is acceptable and what is not, we will in the process change our kids' attitudes.
We can and should look at what we've done in the past in the area of drug prevention to see what worked and what did not work. In the 1980s, people like Nancy Reagan helped change young people's attitudes toward drugs—and in the process changed America's cultural attitudes. This message—that is is "okay" to stay away from drugs—faded away somewhere along the line. We must bring it back ten times stronger if we want to help our kids live happy, healthy and successful lives.
Let's join together to jump-start our efforts to keep our kids in school, and away from drugs and alcohol.