As any parent knows, schools are charged with the important task of educating children and preparing them for the future. But in recent years, schools have been increasingly tasked with another job: policing and disciplining students. This additional responsibility may be taking a toll on students, leading to increased substance abuse.
A recent study found that students who attend schools with stricter policies and more aggressive discipline are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. The study, which was published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, surveyed nearly 1,300 middle and high school students about their substance use and their school’s discipline policies.
The researchers found that students who attended schools with stricter policies were more likely to report drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and using marijuana. They also found that these students were more likely to feel depressed and anxious.
It’s not clear why stricter school policies would lead to increased substance abuse, but the researchers speculate that it may be because these policies make students feel more hopeless and helpless. When students feel like they can’t control their environment or their future, they may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.
If the findings of this study are accurate, it’s possible that schools could be inadvertently contributing to the substance abuse problem they’re trying to prevent. Instead of discipline, schools may need to focus on creating a supportive and positive environment where students feel like they belong.
School policing and disciplining may lead to student substance abuse
As school systems increasingly turn to police to discipline students, there is a risk that students could become exposed to the criminal justice system and face increased odds of substance abuse, according to a new study.
The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, examined data on nearly 3,000 students in Philadelphia. It found that those who were disciplined by school police were more likely to report using alcohol, marijuana and other drugs than those who were not.
The findings add to a growing body of research that suggests that the so-called school-to-prison pipeline is real and that punitive discipline policies can have harmful effects on students.
“These findings suggest that school policing may inadvertently be contributing to the very problem it is meant to solve,” said study author Aaron Kupchik, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.
Schools have long used police to patrol hallways and keep order, but the role of police in schools has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as schools have come to rely on them more to enforce discipline.
In 2013-14, the most recent year for which data is available, nearly one in five public schools reported having sworn law enforcement officers on campus, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The Philadelphia study found that students who were arrested or given citations by school police were more than twice as likely to report using alcohol, marijuana and other drugs than those who were not.
The findings held even after the researchers controlled for a range of other factors, including students’ prior drug use, their age, race, gender and whether they had been suspended from school.
The study did not examine why school policing might lead to increased substance abuse, but Kupchik said there are a number of potential explanations.
For one, he said, students who are arrested or given citations by school police are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system, which could lead them to associate with people who use drugs.
In addition, he said, the stress of being disciplined by school police could lead students to turn to drugs as a way to cope.
“It’s also possible that students who are already using drugs are more likely to be arrested or given citations by school police,” Kupchik said.
The findings come as school districts across the country are rethinking their approach to school discipline. In recent years, a number of districts, including Philadelphia, have adopted so-called restorative justice policies that emphasize repairing the harm caused by misbehavior, rather than meting out punishment.
The new study adds to a growing body of research on the potential harmful effects of school policing.
A 2016 study, for example, found that students who were policed in schools were more likely to be suspende d or expelled, which in turn increased their odds of dropping out of school.
And a 2017 study found that students who were exposed to police in schools were more likely to be arrested as adults.
“This is an important piece of the puzzle,” said Johanna Wald, a professor of law and education at Harvard University who was not involved in the new research.
“It suggests that we need to be very thoughtful about the use of police in schools and the potential consequences of that use,” Wald said.