(New York, NY) — 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.