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August 18, 2006 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

"Beyond Zero Tolerance" Conference Aims to Provide New Paradigm for Educators

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For the past two decades, zero tolerance policies have been the law of the land in high schools across the country. An outgrowth of the federal government's twin concerns over drugs and guns in the schools, such policies are designed to inflexibly punish infractions large or small with suspensions, expulsions and/or referral to law enforcement authorities. But critics of zero tolerance deride it as creating a "school to prison pipeline" and being ineffective to boot. Now educators with a pragmatic approach to student drug use are gearing up for an October conference in San Francisco to present workable, humane, and effective alternatives to the draconian approach popularized in the Reagan administration and still widely embraced in schools across the country.

The Beyond Zero Tolerance Conference is set for October 25 and is aimed at teachers, administrators, and school board members, said Marsha Rosenbaum of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the groups sponsoring the event. Other sponsors include the city and county of San Francisco, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the San Francisco Medical Society, the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

Rosenbaum is not merely another drug reformer; she is an educator, researcher, and leading advocate of more sensible policies for dealing with student drug use. Her Safety First project is a key resource for teachers and administrators seeking more effective means of addressing the issue. Safety First played a key role in laying the groundwork for the October conference.

"This conference is an outgrowth of work we have been doing for some years now," Rosenbaum told Drug War Chronicle. "Three years ago, we convened a statewide task force here in California to come up with a statement about what effective drug education would look like, and we produced a booklet called Beyond Zero Tolerance that combines three elements that hadn't been combined before: drug education that is honest and science-based, approaching the kids in an interactive and participatory manner, and employing restorative practices instead of punishment. We were advocating a process by which students are brought in closer and accepted by the school community after they make amends instead of being suspended, expelled, or otherwise subjected to punishment."

By last fall, it was becoming apparent that the approach was garnering broad interest among educators. "Safety First was getting lots of requests from educators asking us what our approach to drug education at the secondary level would be," said Rosenbaum. "What would it look like? And can you train us on this? We had no idea our approach would resonate so much with educators. This conference is a response to the demand, and it is really aimed at teachers, administrators and school board members. We aim to combine education policy with restorative practices and show educators how they can implement the beyond zero tolerance approach."

"Restorative practices deal with restoring community in an increasingly disconnected world," explained Ted Wachtel, director of the Pennsylvania-based International Institute on Restorative Practices. "People are happier, more productive, more cooperative, and more likely to make positive changes when authority is doing things with them rather than to them or for them. Restorative practices are about recognizing this."

Readers may be more familiar with restorative justice, a movement that began in the 1970s that seeks to put offenders and victims face to face to redress the harm caused rather than merely emphasizing punishment. "Restorative justice is a subset of restorative practices," said Wachtel. "Restorative justice by its nature is reactive, but restorative practices are proactive. These are things you can do in the schools and in the family, you can build social capital and a sense of belonging and connectedness on a proactive basis. That isn't something the justice system can do," he explained.

"Throwing young people out of school for drug offenses and a wide range of other misbehavior is simply not productive," said Wachtel. "It doesn't work. We treat drug and alcohol offenses as criminal matters when they are really a public health issue. If we are talking about students using drugs or alcohol, we are talking about people who need support and assistance in dealing more effectively with their lives. Throwing them out of school or turning them in to the police does not help change their behavior in a positive way."

The Oakland school district provides an idea of how such programs actually work. For the last nine years, that district has operated a program called Up Front, a harm reduction-based drug education and prevention program in its high schools. Program director Charles Ries will address the conference and explain what the Oakland schools are doing.

"We're a relationship-based, process-oriented group of people who believe that the best treatment and prevention messages must be based on science and accurately reported," Ries said. "We think the only way to help anyone decide what is in his own best interest is to engage him in an exploration of the issues," he told Drug War Chronicle.

Zero tolerance approaches simply don't cut it, said Ries. "People who actually do this work understand how ridiculous it is to try to indoctrinate young people with propaganda against the dangers of drug abuse. Try that with students these days and you'll get laughed out of town," he said. "There are many educators already adopting an approach similar to ours, but it's under the radar. The problem is not with the practitioners, but with administrators and policymakers who feel pressured by the federal government to comply with its programmatic philosophy that there is no such thing as responsible drug use and the only response is to just say no. Students are not having that, and when they realize we are not coming from that direction, they fall in love with us."

The program appears to be working well, said Ries. "We evaluate it both through the students, who say it is effective and report that it is often the first time they've been able to have honest conversations with adults about drug use, and through outside evaluators. We had one evaluation by the state and another by the school district, and both of them defined the program as exemplary. It's not rocket science. Having honest, respectful relationships with young people helps them listen to what you're saying. You are collaborating with them on what is in their best interest. That's how you change people's lives."

While the conference is set in San Francisco and weighted heavily toward California concerns, its scope is broader, said Rosenbaum. "We're not just aiming at California; this is a national and international event. We recognize there is interest from across the land and we are trying to have some scholarships available. If you are an educator who would like to attend but there is no money, you should inquire with us. What you will take away from this conference is plenty of materials and a solid argument for implementing such an approach in your school or district."

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