David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | david@davidaltshuler.com

Here, There, and Everywhere

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That there are drugs of all kinds at schools of every kind is not news. By the measure of "opportunities to do drugs" there are no more "good schools" in 2017. None. Two generations ago, it may have been possible to avoid the drug culture in some communities by sending your children to private school rather than public. In other towns, the private schools had more drugs and public schools were the better option. Now, not so much. No local options. And boarding schools? Fuhgeddaboutit. If you think there is a boarding school in this country that doesn't have "policies and procedures" in place regarding overdoses and expulsions, there is a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.
The policy at many schools typically comes down to a distinction between participants and leaders. Users likely get another chance, dealers typically get expelled. But whether your child's school is "one and done" or "teachable moment," is hardly the point. During graduations last week all over the country, there were noteworthy absences. Students are seldom "expelled" for using drugs. Schools don't want the expense, the litigation, the bad publicity. So students are allowed to "withdraw." Wink, wink. There is no record of any infraction on their transcript. After all, maybe the Xanax in his backpack didn't actually belong to him. Maybe he was just "holding on to it for a friend." Maybe the two pounds of marijuana was indeed for "personal use." Maybe this author--a pleasant, 60-year-old, paunchy, balding man--will win the Boston Marathon next April. Maybe.
Having placed students in rehab from every school locally and many cities across the country, I feel pretty confident about my inference that there are indeed drugs in every high school. Perhaps we could quibble about whether low-income schools have more marijuana and high-income schools have more opioids, but I want to finish writing this column and get some lunch. And besides, the reverse could be closer to the truth. Who knows? In any case, this newsletter is not my frequent screed about how "drugs are bad" or "marijuana is now addictive" or "nobody ever woke up one morning and said, 'I have an idea! Today I will enjoy a charming overdose and expire in an alley with a needle in my arm!'" There is a progression through the stages of substance abuse to addiction to chemical dependency. First things first. Walk before you run.
I will mention though that the science is clear. Marijuana is indeed addictive. The marijuana of 40 years ago probably was not. That not everyone who smokes pot today becomes addicted is a poor argument for walking across I-95 because not everyone who perambulates across six lanes of traffic gets run over. And don't even get started telling me that "No one has been expelled from Schnauzer Preparatory School, therefore there are no drugs at dear ol' Schnauzer Prep." It may be true that Schnauzer Prep doesn't expel students for drugs. That blind policy only insures that there are indeed drugs on campus. And that the administration is too naïve or too cowardly to address the issue.
But I digress. The point of my musing--"screed" is such an ugly word--this Tuesday is to point out the way forward for parents who want to increase the odds of keeping their children drug free. Step one is to acknowledge the thorough and utter inanity of the following argument: "Everybody in my high school snuck out to the woods and had a few beers and we're all doing fine. Look at Joe Bagadoughnuts. He still drinks like a fish and he has a thriving business, a good marriage, and lovely children."
That the Bagadoughnuts family is thriving is cold consolation to the kinfolk of Kenny Cupacoffee whose household isn't doing quite so well what with Kenny having been dead all these years having OD'ed a generation ago. "Survivorship bias" is what we used to call this mistake in graduate school. The Bagadoughnuts family gets counted in the statistics; the Cupacoffees do not.
Which doesn't even start to address the difference between a few beers--6% alcohol, you know what you're getting--and MDMA, which could be anything. The NIH mentions cocaine and methamphetamine as possible contaminants as well as rat poison and dog deworming substances. I am not in favor of dogs with worms, nor am I expressing a preference for alcohol instead of drugs. Adolescents should stay away from both. Being shot with a rifle is doubtless preferable to being blown up by a hand grenade, but I'm going to stay out of the way of both if I possibly can, thank you just the same.
Which brings me--"finally" it could be argued--to my point: nobody ever died from a C in algebra. The same cannot be said for an adolescent's experience with Ecstasy. "Lower your expectations" has an unattractive ring to it, but that's my advice. Draw a line in the sand. "Your grades are your business, but stay away from drugs." "I hope you will be a scholar and go to an accredited college, but drugs are not an option." Most importantly, understand that it is an internal locus of control that will keep your beloved children away from drugs. They will be offered drugs in school. How they respond to that invitation depends to a large extent, on their relationship with you.
Kids who know that they are valued for who they are not for what grades they bring home are more likely to 1) bring home good grades and 2) stay away from drugs. There are drugs in every school. The "no" has to begin at home. Your child's relationship with you has to be stronger than your child's relationship with her peers. Your child's relationship with you has to be stronger than your child's relationship with drugs. Sound like a plan?


2 thoughts on “Here, There, and Everywhere

  1. David List

    usually love your columns, but this one didn’t resonate…. the one beer won’t hurt affirmation is really a disservice to your point … just ask any alcoholic… one drink is all it takes…. and it can ONLY start with “one drink”… I know you and everyone did it and I’m glad you got lucky….. I’d ask my mom to confirm, but she died an alcoholic….. I agree, marijuana can be addictive… so can peas and corn… so can life…… everything, ultimately, leads to something else…. love your passion and perspective…. I’d only add I don’t know of one parent who does not drink, smoke or take some kind of mind-numbing, reality easing pill…. I’m not suggesting hit the weed, but put the beer down is something you might consider as well….. Love your children

  2. William Dickerman

    Drugs are indeed in almost every school, but not quite all. We (Hampshire Country School) are a small boarding school and we really, truly do not have a drug culture or any illicit drug use. You can say that we have many advantages over other schools that make a drug-free environment possible, but those advantages didn’t just happen. They are the result of decades of determination not to have a drug environment.
    Here’s how we do it: We are a tiny school and all of our students are boarding students, so we know our students well and we don’t have the frequent coming and going of schools with day students. Our students first enroll in elementary or middle school, so our high school students have grown up in a drug-free school environment. In recruiting, we announce to everyone that we really would immediately expel a student for any drug offense (including one cigarette), so no one sends us students who might violate that rule, and we do not accept students who have any experience with drugs. We do, incidentally, welcome students with lots of other difficult behaviors, just not drugs. We don’t talk about drugs: no lectures, warnings, counseling, or discussions. It is just accepted that drugs are not part of a good life.
    Could other schools do what we do? I think so, but they probably won’t. There are too many great students out there whose only significant fault may be minor drug experimentation, and few schools want to reject such applicants over a slight risk of mild drug use. Imagine, however, what could happen if prestige schools and colleges (say Harvard) announced that they will no longer accept students with any drug experience. Might that give some students pause and start to reduce school drug use elsewhere? It’s a question of priorities. For us, being a drug free environment is who we are. I wish more schools would make the same choice.


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