UNI professor lists precursors to teen drug use

October 5, 2003

Gwenne Culpepper, Office of Public Relations, (319) 273-2761

(Part of the EducatioNet series from the University of Northern Iowa)

For release during October 2003

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Decreasing numbers of students and smaller budgets have forced school districts across the country to merge with others. The result is larger schools, often-confusing strings of letters to name the new districts and, says a University of Northern Iowa professor of social work, an increased likelihood that students will use drugs.

Katherine van Wormer is author of the book, 'Addiction Treatment: A Strengths Perspectives.'

She says smaller schools have the least drug problems. 'In smaller school, the teachers know the families, offer more individual attention to students, and students are better watched. Because of that, they felt responsible to teachers. They don't want to let them down with negative behavior.'

Van Wormer said studies indicate that schools with 300 to 600 students are about the right size.

'Consolidation is a mistake. We have high schools now that are as big as some cities.'

She said there are several other specific factors that are, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, catalysts for drug use among teenagers. Included are too much disposable income and boredom. Van Wormer tosses in lack of academic pressure, as well. 'Our schools are too easy. Kids don't feel like they have to study particularly hard, leaving them with too much spare time on their hands.'

She urges parents to combat the problem by monitoring their children's friendships. 'If your son or daughter is hanging around with kids who are into drugs and smoking, then your kid is probably using drugs or smoking as well. There's a lot of pressure in those groups to fit in, to do what the group does. Those kids wouldn't hang around with your kid if he/she weren't doing the same things.'

Then, she says, take away the 'mystery' of the substance that is often the first step in drug use: alcohol. 'If you serve wine at meals, for example, then drinking is not such a big deal and is associated with moderation,' she says.

Finally, she recommends parents simply stay involved in their children's lives. 'We know that families that eat together are less likely to have kids in trouble. But anymore, work pressures are so strong that parents often neglect kids, giving them money and saying, 'here, go buy what you need -- get your supper and take care of yourselves.' And that leads to problems.'