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Positive School Climate Better at Deterring Student Drug Use

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By guest blogger Gina Cairney

In efforts to steer teenagers away from trying out drugs or alcohol, or even escalating their use of such substances, many schools have employed various programs generally aimed at getting students to "just say no" to drugs.

While some schools have employed an approach that promotes positive school climate, many schools have implemented drug-testing policies as a key deterrent.

But do either of these approaches have any significant impact on students' substance use?

A little. Maybe.

Research published in the January issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs suggests there is very little evidence that school drug testing policies actually work, while methods focusing on social life-skills training have some effect.

Those who support school drug testing approaches suggest that such policies—like requiring students to be tested randomly—would deter students from falling into peer pressure to try and use drugs.

But there's very little research done to clearly support drug testing's effectiveness, the study says.

Critics of drug testing argue that randomized drug tests have negative consequences, including false-positive test results that could mislabel some students as drug users, and lead to their expulsion from school, both of which could have great impact on students' academic success.

So what makes positive school climate a better approach to deterring students from trying out, or even escalating their use of drugs? The researchers turn to what's called social control theory, which examines why people obey rules as expected in society.

Based on this theory, the researchers suggest that positive school climate creates an environment of connectedness, whereby the students feel attached to the school community, and avoid certain behaviors, like substance use, because it goes against their internalized perceptions of behavioral norms and the pro-social expectations encouraged by the school.

Looking at previous studies, the researchers also found that high schools that treated their students with respect, and explained and enforced their drug-use policies were more likely to encourage healthy behaviors than schools that focused on controlling students' behaviors.

Although the study found positive school climate to reduce the likelihood of students trying or escalating their use of drugs, it did not have a significant effect on increased alcohol use.

This could be attributed to the shift in the perception of certain drugs not being as "risky," the researchers say.

As certain drugs become "normalized," their use could be associated with how youth adjust to their adolescence. In the case that certain substances, like alcohol or marijuana, becomes normalized, the researchers predict a weakening of school climate as a deterrent to substance use, and call for additional programs that focus on helping students already using drugs and alcohol.

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