From Preventing “Experiments with Vice” to Bullhorns and Expulsion: Drug Education After the 1970s

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 

As late as 1955, a career Narcotics Bureau enforcement official, M.L. Harney, feared drug prevention’s unintended consequences, claiming, “Often the evil warned against is portrayed so attractively, seductively, and voluptuously that the inevitable result would be to attract people to experiment with the vice.” But drug use spread into the suburban areas surrounding urban centers during the 1960s and 1970s anyway, and convinced politicians to admit that prevention needed more support in public school education. Initially, the original investment under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 split funds for prevention with money allocated for education and enforcement relatively evenly.

Above: Drugs Are Like That, an anti-drug education film from 1969, narrated by Anita Bryant

Although public school drug education gained acceptance in the halls of Congress after the 1960s, these efforts faced severe budget cuts in the 1980s. Liberals’ attempt to balance drug education and prevention with enforcement melted away under a bipartisan move toward a unitary focus on law and order in America. Declining federal funding in the 1980s thus placed responsibility on local districts to create their own drug education initiatives, straining the most cash-strapped of them, while encouraging participation of costly private sector prevention programs. As conservatives urged “law and order” to frame the war on drugs’ punitive focus, preventive education for youth followed the familiar two-tiered approach that embraced interdiction methods to stop drug use in urban schools while reserving more preventive, proportionate, and less draconian tactics for suburban, white youth.

President Ronald Reagan’s administration latched onto the most convenient (and punitive) option to fight drug use in urban school districts populated with Latinos and African Americans. In the late 1980s, the film Lean on Me glorified the get tough approach utilized by Eastside High School’s real life, notorious bull horn-shouting and bat-wielding principal, Joe Clark.  Starring Morgan Freeman, the film exaggerated Clark’s successes with this mostly black student population in Paterson, New Jersey.  Well before the film hit the theaters, Ronald Reagan’s administration had already elevated Clark’s profile as a model for authoritarian enforcement tactics to fight drugs in urban schools. Central to Clark’s claim to fame, he kicked out over 300 students found with drugs and locked the doors to keep them out. As one critic railed, “He [Clark] was the ultimate political tool of the Reagan Administration’s simplistic, cost-cutting attempts to deal with school crime.” Worse, the “Administration buried the results of a massive safe-school study demonstrating that crime and violence are reduced by principals who are fair…”

Above: The cafeteria scene from Lean On Me (1989)

Liberals such as Charles Rangel (D-NY) agreed on the need for discipline. But in an exchange with Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, Rangel wondered why the federal government could not offer the same robust resources for prevention that it did for enforcement. As Rangel explained, Congress called Bennett to testify “to find out whether the administration believes that these educational efforts and these preventive efforts should be merely in the hands of the private sector, or whether or not there should be a greater effort…through your department to make certain that in each and every school, in each and every district, that there is Federal support for some program…” After all, money allocated to drug abuse appropriated for enforcement far exceeded the funds that supported drug education, as only three million of the Department of Education’s $18 billion dollar budget went to prevention.

Citing low cost solutions such as Joe Clark’s “tough love and bullhorn” approach allowed Bennett to place responsibility on communities, now defunded of federal support, to fix their own problems. An unimpressed Rangel replied, “Now that they are kicked out, what do we do? Where is the education?” For Bennet, this punishment served as the best deterrent and confronted individuals’ behavior as the cause for drug use.

Education and prevention, according to Bennett, was useless in these neighborhoods. As he explained, “I asked Joe Clark… ‘I am thinking about using all my discretionary funds for drug abuse prevention. What would you do with them?” and Clark responded proudly, “Keep your money. I set the rules at Eastside High School…I don’t need your drug education program.” In fact, while the passing rate on the basic skills test for urban schools in New Jersey topped out at 48%, only passed 24% of Eastside students passed. Clark’s Lean on Me miracle turn-around never actually happened, but Bennett channeled the film’s mythology and law and order focus into a conversation about low-cost prevention through autocratic control of students’ personal behavior.

In addition, as Rangel feared, the private sector would play a central role in drug prevention education. For-profit prevention regimes flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. With names such TNT (Toward No Tobacco US), the Midwest Prevention Program and the Rand Corporations’ own Project Alert, private programs charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for two- and three-year contracts with individual school districts. The results were mixed. A careful examination of one particular program, Life Skills Training, the most commonly utilized effort in public school education that boasted a 75% reduction in drug use, showed mostly temporary success with subgroups such as females. Despite its debated impact, however, over 50,000 teachers and more than three million students in the US have participated in this program, and 32 other countries also employed LST. The emphasis in this program, countering Clark’s authoritarian strategy, allowed for peer-led programming that showed the best results. Still, even this liberal version of drug education focused on individual behavior and not the environmental factors that more frequently determine drug abuse.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s shift to enforcement as prevention persisted and directed funding for education in the 1980s and 1990s to tightly coordinated programs with the Drug Enforcement Agency and support for Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), which placed local police officers in classrooms and school settings to teach students about drug abuse. This once-beloved federal program also lost favor when studies about its effectiveness, or lack thereof, forced Congress to sever its ties and cut funding for DARE’s once omnipresent anti-drug organization. Even when it tried preventive education, federal programming maintained its selective enforcement emphasis and furthered the war on drugs’ spatial and racial disparities.

Recently, efforts to reform public school drug prevention have made considerable strides in considering the environmental factors driving drug use instead of targeting personal behavior.  As a 2008 report on drug prevention observed, “There are evidence-based programs that are effective in school environments but because they require time and resources that are unavailable, they are not for the most part being taught.”  Thus, while environmental prevention methods’ popularity has increased in the last decade, the same forces limiting their application are to blame for the uneven, outdated and lingering emphasis on individual behavior and enforcement that hindered public school drug education since the 1980s.