The Austin Chronicle

Opinion: Texas Schools’ Drug Policies Aren’t Working

By Dhiya Dhandapani, July 9, 2021, Columns

A 14-year-old girl can walk into school as an ordinary student and walk out with a felony. All it takes is one lapse in judgment – a five-minute mistake – and she will forever have a criminal record. The education system is at the root of the problem, and the solution. A potential light in the bleak world of drug education was House Bill 62, which was proposed, yet sadly not passed in the 87th Texas Legislative session. Texas missed an opportunity to employ restorative justice practices, which focus on healing harm rather than inflicting punishment. In the case of drugs, often the only harm done is to the user themselves, opening the possibility for addiction counseling and other forms of therapy that help students address the root of potential problems that cause them to use drugs as a coping mechanism. Current "drug education" programs leave students wildly unprepared for actual interactions with substances and their consequences – both legal and emotional. After failing to provide evidence-based prevention, Texas schools respond with substance charges that can keep students out of school forever and lead to lifelong involvement in the criminal justice system. Schools must provide mandatory drug education rather than inescapable incarceration.

When a student in Texas is caught with any amount of an illegal substance, they are automatically expelled. The Texas Education Code states that students facing expulsion receive consideration regarding their disciplinary history and intent on a case-by-case basis at the district's discretion, yet also indicates that any illegal substances result in automatic expulsion. The vagueness of "consideration" in tandem with the contradiction of the Code offers no benefit to students. THC oil cartridges ("carts") are cannabis vaping devices popular among younger people. What most students don't know is that any amount of a cannabis derivative like THC is a felony, unlike misdemeanor charges for most amounts of cannabis. Students walk out of school with a felony and an expulsion – the same punishment given for sexual assault and manslaughter – for possession of a non-addictive substance legal in some states.

Keeping kids safe starts with education. When it comes to drug education, schools continue to use outdated methods that simply check a box. For example, many Texas elementary schools employ the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program, which brings police officers into schools in an attempt to scare kids away from drugs. The ineffectiveness of this program has been proven by the American Psychological Association, the National Institute of Justice, and the University of Illinois. Bard Early College is a high school that has begun to implement harm reduction-focused drug education. This program, called Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens, acknowledges that teens may be curious about substances. Safety First provides education on preventing overdoses or recognizing signs of peer pressure. It's time to remove the stigma around drug education and give kids real tools such as this.

There are concerns that talking about drugs will normalize them and increase teen substance abuse. While these concerns are valid, the decades-old "Just Say No" rhetoric is clearly not working. Parents and educators may wish to divide kids into "good" kids who won't use drugs and "bad" kids who will, but this is a pipe dream. Drug use is happening across student demographics. Schools' failure to address this reality is negligence. If schools have the power and resources to convict and criminalize, they should be able to provide healing and education.

The students that schools punish are just scared kids. One of my friends was caught with her friend's THC cart. Because it was handed to her moments before, she was charged with possession – a felony. She was expelled. These consequences may be intended as a deterrent, but are instead creating an environment where students feel targeted and attacked by the system. Schools must educate and provide support for students before punishing them.

Dhiya is a high school student in Texas. Seeing the effects of the current systems and inequities in schools have ignited a passion in her for restorative justice and advocacy. She’s a Spark Change Project high school peer facilitator and works to empower Black and brown girls to advocate for change throughout the state.

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