A Cross-National Comparison of School Drug Policies in Washington State, United States, and Victoria, Australia

Article excerpt

Initiatives aimed at preventing and reducing youth drug use often occur in schools. Schools remain important contexts for youth socialization and health promotion, (1) and they provide access to most adolescents across a broad developmental period. School drug policies are one of several components that comprise a school's health promotion environment. (2) They may influence student substance use by limiting the availability of substances and opportunities for use or by affecting students' normative beliefs. (3) Student drug use is also likely to be affected by other influences, such as parents and the media. (1,4)

The governments of the United States and Australia have identified substance abuse as a policy priority; however, their strategies for addressing the problem are quite different. (5,6) The fundamental aim of the US National Drug Control Strategy is to reduce the use of drugs, (7) whereas the overarching goal of Australia's National Drug Strategy is to reduce the harm associated with drug use. (5) Policymakers in both countries recognize that use reduction and harm reduction are logically related, but the respective emphases result in meaningful differences in strategy, particularly in relation to youth. The use-reduction goal is linked to abstinence-based and zero-tolerance approaches to adolescent substance use. Harm-minimization policies include encouragement for youth to remain abstinent from drug use, but they also acknowledge that some youth will use drugs.

This study compared a broad range of factors comprising the school drug policy environments in 2 states in countries with contrasting national drug policies. The state representative samples come from Washington, a northwestern US state, and Victoria, a southern state in Australia. The aims of this study were to validate measures of key aspects of school policy and to help school administrators, teachers, parents, and community members understand how their schools' policies compare to those following a different drug policy approach.


Policy Documentation

The extent of school drug policy documentation varies considerably across schools but most often includes a statement of philosophy, a summary of prohibited behaviors, and guidelines for the enforcement of restrictions. Some evidence exists that written policies are less prevalent in schools serving younger students compared to schools for older students, (8) suggesting that school administrators may favor addressing the relatively low rates of drug-related incidents among younger student populations with informal measures.

Involvement in Policy Setting

Districts and schools frequently develop their own drug policies but are likely to be influenced by education authorities and government policies. Compared to a top-down approach to policy setting, consultation with various stakeholders in the policy development process (school administrators, teachers, school health professionals, parents, and students) is thought to facilitate policy implementation, enforcement, and compliance. (4,9-11) Studies in the United Kingdom and Canada showed that most schools involve teachers in policy-setting work groups, whereas only a minority of schools involve parents and students. (12,13) A national US study similarly showed that less than one half of the schools involved parents in drug policy development and implementation. (14)

Policy Communication and Awareness

Frequent communication of school drug policies to a range of stakeholders might be the most effective strategy for ensuring that students receive a consistently reinforced message regarding drug-use norms and norm-violation consequences. Evidence from a British study of parents' perspectives revealed low parental awareness of school drug education policy messages and enforcement procedures. (15)

Policy Monitoring

The use of procedures, such as adult hall monitoring and schoolwide locker checks, is expected to facilitate policy implementation through the consistent delivery of prevention messages and monitoring of policy violations. …