Students regularly taunt a disabled peer. Without any family at school to console her, she cries in the bathroom during lunch every day and seeks an escape from it all. A security guard eventually catches her rolling a joint in that bathroom and brings her to an administrator who suspends her “for her own good.” Two days later, the girl returns to school—still bullied, still hopeless, still hyped up on drug-crazed nihilism. But now, with a stained disciplinary record, she shifts her resentment away from her callous peers and towards the system that has reified her neglect and disadvantages. College and job prospects look bleaker, and school becomes even more of a drag. She realizes, glumly, that this system was designed not for her but for non-depressed students, for students who have the resources to avoid self-medication, and for drug-wielding students simply lucky enough to not get caught using drugs.
And how unfair all of it is.
Under the guise of objectivity, our drug policies tip the balance against young people like the friend whose story I describe above. She started with the disadvantage of her disability. These kids aren’t always the most depraved, but, like my friend, they are often the unluckiest and most downtrodden. They alter their consciousness to escape sorrow, and we only compound their suffering when we punish them by ruining their disciplinary records. We call this kind of involvement “helping,” but it’s actually the opposite, for staining a record punishes the victims of exclusion. This fear-based, paternalistic onslaught, for all of its flashy “tough on crime” lingo, doesn’t even much mitigate drug use— that’s why our energies would be much better spent grappling with the oppressions that make people use drugs in the first place.
As anyone who studies the issue can tell you, abuse against disabled children is dismally high. Relative to their able-bodied peers, studies show that children with disabilities are 2.9 times more likely to endure sexual abuse and 3.6 times more likely to face physical abuse. They are bullied 2 to 3 times more frequently than their able-bodied cohorts, and, according to a University of Calgary study, disabled students are more likely to display aggressive behavior, low self-esteem, nightmares, and regression in the aftermath of sexual abuse. Malcolm X observed that African-Americans “turn to drugs because we are trapped,” thus pinpointing an intractable social reality that unfortunately extends to many disabled young people who feel “trapped” in unsupportive families and schools.
Our solution, then, must begin with a reconceptualization of school punishment and how it relates to students who self-medicate. If we accept John Stuart Mill’s principle that governments should restrict a person’s liberty only in order to prevent him or her from harming somebody else, then we have no sound basis for banishing from school adolescent drug users who are hurting nobody but themselves. I implore readers to visit any public school and see if you can find a single abstinent student who feels even slightly endangered by his or her peers’ marijuana possession. Most kids understand what our policymakers don’t: that drugs, at their worst, most often hurt only their users, and suspending nonviolent smokers makes no one safer.
Many good-natured administrators recognize the brokenness of our current approach to drugs but don’t know how else to promote healthy living. Wherever possible, these administrators should break away from our disciplinary norms and give community-based solutions a shot. They can begin by creating and recruiting for more inclusive extracurricular activities—intramural sports, performance troops, and science clubs—that allow students to exercise their bodies and minds. Engaged in inspiring sober pursuits, students will be less likely to depend on marijuana for excitement, and socially excluded students, in particular, will be more likely to cultivate an often-elusive self-esteem.
Where domestic violence and bullying are concerned, teachers must be trained to identify the signs of abuse and urged by administrators to refer victimized students to counselors. Combining compassionate attention with rehabilitative outlets for drug users will yield a well-treated population of children who will no longer feel the need to mollify their angst with drugs.
I had a friend in high school whose father struggled with serious cancer. Teachers and administrators often reprimanded him for self-medicating, but he was so deeply depressed and dependent on drugs that he didn’t even mind their punishments. Only when he entered counseling at the behest of friends was he willing to confront his sadness on sober terms. I realized in watching his transformation that as enticing as the quick fix of discipline is, suspensions and demerits cannot remedy in the way therapy and support can.
Some critics are quick to point out that not all adolescent drug-users get high for the reasons my friend did. Surely, these critics argue, schools should crack down on healthy, jubilant kids who use drugs just for the fun of it. I argue that if “cracking down” means speaking honestly about drug use and treating in-school drug code violations as opportunities for self-reflection and community discussion, then by all means we should “crack down.” But if these critics simply clamor for more arrests of students who buy drugs on campus, if they mean we ought to suspend kids who stash a bit of weed in their lockers, if they mean we ought to injure students because we fear that they’ll injure themselves, and if they mean we must compromise the status of school as a protective haven for children, then we should look for alternatives to “cracking down.” As long as we keep punishing the non-depressed adolescent marijuana users, we’re going to continue to hurt those who self-medicate as well. Cracking down, then, simply isn’t worth the price.
No system can totally end adolescent drug use, but getting rid of our current disciplinary structure will at least remove an unnecessary hurdle from the professional and post-secondary paths of those kids who are most down on their luck. Administrators have no moral authority to incriminate drug users who struggle with disability, family dysfunction and the sting of social exclusion unless they are willing to personally endure those students’ most crushing burdens. If schools are to be places of protection, growth and encouragement, they must stop tearing down the will and self-esteem of those students who most need help.
This article was originally published for The Good Men Project.