Aug. 20, 2010 -- The nation's public schools earn a failing grade when it comes to protecting teens from drugs and gang activity, a nationwide survey suggests.
About one in four surveyed teens attending public schools reported the presence of both gangs and drugs at their schools, and 32% of 12- and 13-year-old middle school children said drugs were used, kept, or sold on school grounds -- a 39% increase in just one year.
The findings suggest that as many as 5.7 million public school children in the U.S. attend schools with both drugs and gangs.
Former U.S. secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano Jr. calls drugs and gang activity a cancer on the nation's public schools.
"It is just outrageous," he tells WebMD. "It is nothing less than state-sanctioned child abuse to require parents to send their kids to schools where drugs and gangs are present."
Califano directs the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), which conducts the annual back-to-school survey of teen and parent attitudes on drug and alcohol abuse.
Survey: Gangs Are Everywhere
For the first time this year, the 12- to 17-year-olds who participated in the survey were asked about the presence of gangs at their school. Among the findings:
- 46% of public school students, but just 2% of private and religious school students, said there were gangs at their school.
- Compared to teens in schools without gangs, those in schools with gangs were nearly twice as likely to report that drugs were available and used at school (30% vs. 58%).
- Compared to teens attending schools without gangs and drugs, teens attending schools with drugs and gangs were 12 times more likely to have tried cigarettes, five times as likely to have used marijuana, and three times more likely to have used alcohol.
Califano says gangs have spread far beyond their traditional urban settings of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are now found in much smaller cities and suburbs and even rural areas.
Gang expert Carter Smith agrees that gangs are a growing problem in places where they have not been recognized before.
In 2002, Smith moved to the historic town of Franklin, Tenn., near Nashville -- a popular destination for tourists and one of the last places one would expect to find gangs.
On his first visit to a local park with his then young sons, Smith spotted gang graffiti.
The 2008 gang-related shooting death of a student from a Franklin high school shocked the sleepy community.
A member of a gang, the student was returning home from a party when he was shot by rival gang members who pulled up beside his SUV and opened fire.
"Parents who live in wealthy communities shouldn't think their schools are immune to gang activity," Smith tells WebMD. "Schools are only immune when the parents and school administrators refuse to accept the presence of gangs."
Public Schools vs. Private Schools
The survey highlights a widening gap between public and private schools with regard to drug and alcohol use.
In CASA's 2001 survey, 62% of public school students and 79% of private and religious school students said they attended drug-free schools. In the latest survey, less than half of public school students (43%) and 78% of private school students said their school was free of drugs.
Teens in public schools were 23 times more likely to report gang activity in their schools than teens in private schools.
Califano says parental involvement may be as important as economic advantage in explaining the gap. He points to New York City parochial schools where parents who can't afford tuition work to pay for their children to attend.
"These schools are in really poor neighborhoods, right next to failing public schools," he says. "Yet they are graduating almost all of their kids."
This year's survey found that parental involvement and strong family ties were among the strongest influences in whether teens smoked, drank alcohol, or used recreational drugs.
Compared to teens with strong family ties, those with weak ties were four times as likely to try tobacco or marijuana and three times as likely to drink alcohol.
CASA Director of Marketing Kathleen Ferrigno says simple things like knowing your teen's friends and eating family meals together can have a big impact.
And parents should never accept drinking and drug use as a normal part of growing up, she tells WebMD.
"We know that kids who smoke, drink, or use drugs at an early age have a high risk for addiction as they get older," she says. "Drinking, smoking, and drug use should never be viewed as a rite of passage."