A new curriculum encourages high schoolers to abstain from substance use but acknowledges not all of them will.
By Katelyn Newman
Much like a shift from preaching total abstinence to openly discussing safe sex, the goal of a new drug education curriculum is to help students make healthy choices.(GETTY IMAGES)
A NEW HIGH SCHOOL DRUG education curriculum aims to overhaul the Reagan-era “Just say no” mindset by teaching students how to critically think about and use drugs safely – if and when they choose to use.
In early October, the Drug Policy Alliance – a nonprofit that advocates for a harm-reduction approach to drug use – released its 15-class “Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens” curriculum for free online, enabling teachers to download and incorporate the lesson plans into their health education classes. Much like a shift from preaching total abstinence to openly discussing safe sex, the goal is to help students make healthy choices.
“It takes a realistic approach, encouraging abstinence but also teaching strategies that help young people keep themselves or others safe if they ever choose to use drugs,” says Sasha Simon, program manager for the initiative.
“Even if teens aren’t using, as they get older, they more than likely will engage in some form of substance use, so the idea is to make sure they’re prepared for the life course,” Simon says.
Created to align with the National Health Education Standards and Common Core learning standards, the roughly 45-minute lessons range from covering how drugs work and various harm-reduction strategies to the effects, risks and benefits of different types of substances, including alcohol, marijuana, e-cigarettes and prescription and other opioids.
In its “Introduction to Harm Reduction” sample lesson plan, the curriculum instructs teachers to tell students that “the safest choice when it comes to alcohol and other drugs is always to abstain” from use. The lesson goes on to discuss other harm-reduction strategies, such as using substances in moderation, using drugs “at a low dose and a slow dosage,” checking drugs with a test or screening kit for dangerous adulterants and knowing what to do in an emergency situation.
“Thinking through all the possibilities and consequences can take some time,” the lesson says. “But with practice, you can develop the habit of weighing your options and making a decision that will lead to the safest and healthiest outcome for you and others around you. Ultimately, putting harm reduction into practice will help keep you and your friends safer.”
A curriculum overview also says the lessons will help students “understand the impact of drug policies on personal and community health” and “learn how to advocate for restorative drug policies.”
Simon says the curriculum, created for ninth- and 10th-graders, has been downloaded more than 700 times, and a number of instructors already have issued its online pretest to their students. Before releasing it, the Drug Policy Alliance piloted the lessons in a New York City high school and five high schools in the San Francisco Unified School District to test how students, teachers and parents responded.
Drew Miller, a health teacher at Bard High School Early College in New York, tested the curriculum with his ninth-grade students in the spring of 2018 and says he plans to continue to use it. He says the response has been “overwhelmingly positive” from both students and adults.
After a presentation on the curriculum for the school’s parents, “it was kind of like, ‘Well, my kids didn’t get that last year’ and, ‘When is my kid going to get it?'” Miller says. “The response has been that they want more, and they want it in every brain.”
When it comes to either sex or drug education, Miller says the American approach has been to protect students by “not giving them information and just trying to keep it from them and hoping that they won’t do it,” which he calls “a huge disservice.”
“These youth – whether it’s middle school, high school, elementary kids – can start having conversations (and) need to be building these skills and learning about this earlier so that, if and when they engage in sexual activity or they or their friends are experimenting and using drugs, they know what to do,” he says.[
Overall, Simon says the Drug Policy Alliance has “encountered surprisingly little pushback,” with the “number of overdose fatalities, the evolving landscape of cannabis regulation and soaring rates of teen vaping” causing parents to want a more comprehensive approach for their children.
But Luke Niforatos, chief of staff and senior policy adviser for Smart Approaches to Marijuana – a nonprofit opposed to marijuana legalization and commercialization – says the connection between the lesson plans and their parent organization’s liberal approach to drug policy makes the curriculum “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” as “there really is not a safe way to use drugs.”
“Even with elements of harm reduction, drugs still have an untold impact on the developing brain, on the body, and on families and communities,” Niforatos says. “You cannot remove the fact that science tells us that drug use harms the developing brain, harms the way that you develop as a young adult and into your adult life; it harms your ability to form relationships, your emotional stability. Drug use harms so many things about our youth, and there’s no way to mitigate that.”
The parent of a 3-year-old daughter, Niforatos says he hopes no school adopts the new curriculum.
“Our curriculums must continue to encourage youth not to use drugs at all, in any way,” Niforatos says.
Yet Sophie Godley, a clinical assistant professor of community health sciences at Boston University who has fought against an abstinence-only mindset in sexual health for nearly two decades, says she found the curriculum to be “outstanding.”
“If implemented as intended, (it) really has an opportunity to not only save lives but really change future conversations about drugs and drugs in our society, and potentially really change how we approach talking about drugs and alcohol with young people,” Godley says.
“This is where we’re at in 2019: We have some really scary things happening in our communities, and young people need better tools than, ‘Don’t do it, don’t ever do it’ and, ‘By the way, you’re immoral and bad if you do do it,'” Godley says. “What young people crave and desperately want are meaningful conversations about how to live with and work and survive with the drugs and alcohol that are currently in our society, and furthermore, how to square and reconcile what they see happening in the world around drugs and alcohol.”[
Mary Andres, co-director of the master’s program in marriage and family therapy and a professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California, says she found the curriculum’s online sample lesson to be both “age-appropriate” and “beneficial” with its critical-thinking approach.
“People that are promoting ‘abstinence-only’ feel like … if you just abstain, that’s the safest path to go. But what happens is, it’s almost building a superstition around something” that puts what your peers may be doing against what authority figures advise, Andres says.
“If you don’t have an internal sense of, ‘What’s the right decision for me? What does my knowledge tell me about this?’ – which is what critical thinking is – people are unprepared to make a decision,” Andres says. “Trying to do any kind of comprehensive sex education or harm reduction is just giving people information so that they will critically think about it and make smart decisions” instead of fear-based ones.
Abby Quirk – a research associate for K-12 Education at the left-leaning Center for American Progress – says for both drug and sex education, educational efforts need to maintain a balance of not “introducing students to things they don’t yet understand or that they’re too young to fully comprehend” while also not “waiting too long.”