Analysis, Commentary, Health and Fitness

First-Ever Realistic Drug Education Curriculum Piloted in New York City High School

Safety First Education Program
(Source: Drug Policy Alliance)

Students and Teachers at Bard High School in Manhattan Just Say “No” to Ineffective Abstinence-Only Approaches and “Yes” to Harm Reduction

New York, NY –(ENEWSPF)—April 12, 2018

By: Tony Newman and Stefanie Jones

Bard High School Early College Manhattan (BHSEC) is known for its innovative curriculum. Now, they are taking a leap where no high school has gone before when it comes to drug education for their 9th grade health students. This month BHSEC became the first high school in the country to pilot the Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens curriculum developed by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) designed as an alternative to abstinence-only messages, such as D.A.R.E.. The 14-unit course emphasizes critical thinking and healthy decision-making, when it comes to teenagers and drugs.

“We designed this curriculum using a similar philosophy to modern sex education,” says Sasha Simon, DPA’s Safety First Program Manager. “Fundamental to our approach is harm reduction, which acknowledges that as much as we would like for young people not to use drugs, we know that some of them will. We want to give young people accurate information and concrete strategies to keep them safe.”

D.A.R.E. and other abstinence-only drug education programs have long-proven to be ineffective.  As the article Why “Just Say No” Doesn’t Work from Scientific American notes: “Merely telling participants to ‘just say no’ to drugs is unlikely to produce lasting effects because many may lack the needed interpersonal skills. Programs led exclusively by adults, with little or no involvement of students as peer leaders seem relatively unsuccessful.” Programs such as D.A.R.E. bring an outside instructor into the classroom, whereas the Safety First curriculum was developed for health teachers and designed for students to develop strong research, communication and harm reduction skills with their peers, “the very people who have the greatest influence on their choices around drug use,” says Simon.

The new Safety First curriculum will help students: 1) Use critical thinking skills to access and evaluate information about alcohol and other drugs; 2) Learn decision-making and goal-setting skills to help them make healthy choices related to substance use; 3) Develop personal and social strategies to manage the risks, benefits and harms of alcohol and other drug use; 4) Understand the impact of drug policies on personal and community health; and 5) Learn how to advocate for health-oriented drug policies. The curriculum contains 14 lessons and aligns with National Health Education Standards (NHES).

Every 9th grader currently enrolled in health at BHSEC (close to 90 students in total) will take this course as part of their adolescent health curriculum mandated by New York state. This pilot program started on March 5 and will end on March 29.  BHSEC was chosen for the pilot in part because of its high school student body diversity (racial, gender and economical), which mirrors national statistics.

“Our goal is to test this curriculum in multiple school populations so that we can continue to refine it and eventually make it accessible on a national level,” says Simon. “I’m personally observing these teachings in the classroom and am blown away by the thoughtful questions the students are asking. They are hungry for information about drugs, and we are giving them tools to make healthy and responsible choices.”

The new curriculum is being rigorously evaluated to determine whether it has an immediate effect on the thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors of freshman in relationship to substance use; and to test the surveys and interview guides to determine that they are valid measurements of curriculum success.  Evaluators working through the Research Foundation of CUNY will be delivering their findings this summer, which will impact a new version of the curriculum to be released in the fall of 2018.

The Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens curriculum is the culmination of almost 20 years of work in youth drug issues spearheaded by the director of DPA’s San Francisco office, Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum. As a mother and a professional drug researcher, Dr. Rosenbaum wrote Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens, Drugs, and Drug Education to help other parents address the challenge of what to do if their child decides to try alcohol or other drugs, in spite of their advice to remain abstinent. This booklet, grounded in the theory of harm reduction and honest, science-based drug education, became the foundation for DPA’s Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens curriculum.

Related Material:

Drug Policy Alliance Blog

The Opposite of D.A.R.E – DPA Launches New High School Drug Education Curriculum in a NYC School By: Sasha Simon, April 10, 2018

How many years have we known that abstinence-based programs like D.A.R.E. fail to truly educate young people about drugs, and that we need a replacement?

The answer: too many. But happily, now there’s an alternative: DPA’s Safety First: Real Drug Education for Teens.

Safety First started out as a resource for parents to talk to their teens about drugs and has now evolved into a curriculum designed to be implemented in 9th and 10th grade high school health classes. It is based in the principles of harm reduction and consists of 14 interactive lessons covering how we define a ‘drug,’ how drugs work in the body, their effects, risks and benefits of five major drug classes, and the impact of drug policy on personal and community health.

Safety First is the culmination of almost 20 years of work in youth drug issues by DPA’s Dr. Marsha Rosenbaum, as well as many other DPA staffers. I am proud to have joined that group by guiding Safety First in its first real-world pilot and evaluation last month at Bard High School Early College Manhattan. For the first time ever in a U.S. public school, students are receiving a science and harm reduction-based education about drugs.

Listen to this exciting conversation on the latest episode of DPA’s podcast Drugs and Stuff with the teacher who is leading these lessons, and me.

It was amazing to see the curriculum in action in the classroom. Already, countless valuable lessons have been learned. Here are a few highlights:

Teens are learning from each other, their greatest influences.

In contrast to D.A.R.E., where young people pledge an oath of abstinence to a police officer, students are learning, practicing and researching harm reduction skills with each other. They engage in dialogues about health, policy and advocacy. They’re asked to consider how and why these issues affect them as individuals, but also to grapple with their impact on a community level, including communities most harmed by the drug war.

Led by the health teacher, students in the pilot classrooms at Bard were engaged and talkative (in a good way!) during every lesson. In many instances they challenged each other and learned from each other’s points of view.

Safety First empowers students to make responsible choices.

A parent emailed DPA a few months ago — he’d been devastated by his son’s overdose death. His son died in the presence of friends because they believed they would get in trouble if they called 911. He became impassioned about informing every young person in his state about 911 Good Samaritan laws, which may have saved his son.

Safety First guides students to research their states’ Good Samaritan laws. Students are also taught how to place their fellow students in the recovery position. They watched a video about how to recognize an opioid overdose and how naloxone can save lives. They learned about the benefits and limitations of drug checking after completing an activity where they tried to choose the “right” drink from a pitcher filled with salt water versus one filled with sugar water.

Teens are ready and willing to discuss how drug policy impacts their health.

Students didn’t miss a beat during the Health, Policy and Advocacy lesson. They could grasp the topic and its complexities as they explored numerous ways to approach drug use and drug policy in the U.S. that would focus on health, rather than criminalization.

The curriculum respects each student’s values and takes no position on any particular policy or reform effort. What Safety First does do is help students explore how a policy is made and what it takes to change it. Students can develop any perspective on drug policy they like, but all must engage in the rigors of research and critical thinking, and test and defend their perspective with their peers. The policy-centered lessons had some of the most lively conversations and debate!

What’s next for Safety First?

We’ve developed a tool that follows the best practices of public health and education while also respecting the intelligence and potential of students. Their responses and engagement in the classroom tell us that this is exactly the kind of curriculum they’ve been wanting, and the one the country has been needing.

If you’re excited about this future of drug education in the U.S., please sign up to find out more about the public release of the Safety First curriculum, which should be coming in fall 2018.

Sasha Simon is the Safety First program manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Drugs and Stuff

Episode 13: The Opposite of D.A.R.E – DPA Launches New High School Drug Education Curriculum in a NYC School, April 3, 2018

Remember last year when we sat down with DPA’s Marsha Rosenbaum to talk about what drug education should look like for young people? If you missed it, check out that great conversation from Episode 05 when Marsha explained the history of “Safety First,” a DPA project that was dedicated to providing honest, reality-based information to parents for when they talk to their teens about using drugs. That project has now grown and evolved into a high school curriculum for 9th and 10th grade health classes, and it’s being piloted right now at Bard High School Early College Manhattan. For the first time ever in a U.S. public school, students are receiving a science and harm reduction-based education about drugs.

In this episode we get an inside look and talk about the rollout of DPA’s historic and revolutionary drug education curriculum with Sasha Simon, DPA’s Safety First Program Manager, and Drew Miller, the health teacher from Bard High School Early College Manhattan who is teaching the “Safety First” curriculum.