It is safe to say that teachers have their hands full in today’s education system. On top of their regular responsibilities, they also have to tackle issues regarding funding, staff politics, class sizes, parental involvement, bullying, and classroom technological changes. While that does not include any personal or situation-specific elements, it is still a lot to deal with individually. Any help or guidance is greatly appreciated when it is available.
A new problem has developed in the last few decades, and many teachers are not entirely sure of how to approach it: students with drug abuse or addiction issues. Information regarding drugs often changes as new kinds and methods of use become popular. The demographics of people who abuse drugs—either in general or specific drugs—are also changing and the person using is not always an individual one might expect. Add in everything else a teacher must watch for among their students, and it can get challenging to keep up.
This guide is intended to help teachers in every branch of education catch up to what is currently known about drug and alcohol abuse and provide them with options of how to handle instances among their students. Keep in mind that this is only current information and portions of this guide may be rendered obsolete by future laws, drugs, or policies relevant to substance abuse. It is a comprehensive guide that educators can apply to multiple scenarios, even those that may occur outside of the classroom.
Student drug abuse often falls under responsibilities related to student safety and associated prevention measures. When a child is in school, the teachers, administrators, and other staff members on campus are responsible for student’s safety and well-being while the student is on campus. From a legal standpoint, federal and state laws have been put in place to create drug-free schools where any type of illicit or addictive substances are banned. Prescription medications that are necessary for the treatment of a medical condition are usually excluded, but only if they meet certain requirements laid out in policies placed by the school, district, or local or state government. It is often the responsibility of any staff or student on a school campus to report violations to school administrators, who often address such situations and contact authorities when necessary.
Prevention programs, like Project ALERT or the D.A.R.E program, are often staples in schools, and teachers are expected to encourage student participation in such programs. National or state operated-prevention programs, or even those specifically created by a school or school district, are often valuable resources for teachers in their efforts to prevent and recognize drug abuse issues in their classrooms. Some schools may also have programs designed to detect and combat instances in the event that prevention fails, with educators holding some responsibility in the execution and enforcement of such programs.
Teachers may also have some responsibility to address student drug abuse under mandatory reporting laws. These laws are applicable to cases of child neglect and abuse where certain individuals, like educators, are expected to report instances to the proper authorities. However, the circumstances of a student’s drug use may constitute an application of mandated reporting.
If the parent(s) are exposing or otherwise supplying their child with drugs, may be deemed as abuse under the law as they are jeopardizing their child’s safety, which makes it a mandatory reporting situation for the teacher. A report would also be necessary when the parent(s) abuse drugs, as there can be suspected abuse and neglect. Indirect or unintentional drug exposure can be included, as a home-based production of methamphetamine can expose everyone in the home to the drug’s toxins.
While some drugs have noticeable physical signs of usage in a person that is unique to a certain type of drug (e.g., vivid and active hallucinations with hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or PCP), other symptoms generally apply to the use of virtually any illicit substance. Some of the most telling signs are behavioral. Many who abuse drugs try to hide it, either out of shame or denial. These signs may include :
In addition to behavior changes, there may also be physical signs of drug abuse in the student’s overall appearance:
Keep in mind that many cases of drug abuse will often time result in multiple symptoms with some degree of frequency rather than a one-time instance. There may also be a legitimate, non-drug related explanation for some of these signs, such as medical and psychiatric conditions (e.g., eating disorders, depression, or intentional self-injury). It could be due to the effects of prescribed medication or issues at home. However, educators should make efforts to take note of any of these symptoms and address them seriously.
Not all instances of substance abuse involve what most would consider as drugs. Alcohol is one such example. Due to its ease of accessibility and sweeping use among adolescents, alcohol use will be covered extensively in this guide. There is a social element when it comes to drinking, and students may choose or be pressured by their peers to drink in a variety of settings. Students may also use drinking to cope with things in their life stress, other health conditions, situations at home, and more.
Alcohol use does not always entail constant, regular drinking; instances of binge drinking often occur, especially with young, inexperienced drinking teens. With young teens, fewer than 4 or 5 drinks in a sitting can constitute binge drinking and can entail the same consequences. Their physical size alone (particularly young, lightweight middle schoolers) gives a single shot of alcohol more punch than it would a football-playing high schooler, for example.
It can be especially dangerous as the individual consumes more alcohol than their body can process at one time. This may lead to alcohol poisoning, seizures, choking from vomiting while unconscious, organ or brain damage, and death. The amount of drinking that commonly occurs at parties is often binge drinking, which is common among high school students. Teenagers and young adult’s drinking at a party accounts for about 90% of their alcohol consumption.
Most instances of alcohol abuse will not happen on campus, but teachers will likely be able to identify the effects it has on the student after the fact. Some signs to look for include:
Narcotics or opioids are drugs that impact a person’s senses. Many of these drugs are used legally for medical purposes, such as pain relievers, but they have strict restrictions in place that can easily cause their usage to be deemed illegal like their illicit counterparts. Opiates can be abused due to their ability to produce a sensation of euphoria in the absence of pain. The return of that pain when the opioid leaves the person’s system can be intense, causing them to seek relief again.
The longer the individual’s exposure to the drug, the higher their tolerance will become, and they will then need to take an increasingly higher dosage in order to experience its effects. Tolerance leads to dependence and addiction, and it can occur with nearly every drug in this guide.
Some opioids are prescribed, while others may be purchased on the street. They may be natural, semi-synthetic, or synthetic in the chemical makeup. Some of the most common include:
Most opioids and narcotics produce a euphoric feeling for the user, which might not be easily identifiable to those around them. For educators, it may be best to look for the following signs:
Depressants are medications that have a calming effect on the user, and many are used to address anxiety and sleep problems. They are also commonly used to treat muscular conditions and seizures. As a result, many depressants have a legitimate usage outside of drug abuse. Most depressants come in the form of pills, and some are available as a liquid or syrup for oral or injectable use.
The effects of depressant use are largely the same regardless of the drug taken, and often with symptoms developing at different intensities. Some of the most common signs teachers may notice from students using depressants include :
There are four different types of depressants, with only one having no legal usage and not an approved medication on the market in the United States.
Just as there are depressants that calm or slow the body down, there are stimulants which speed things up. They also are frequently available through legitimate means for medical usage, but can be abused to produce a rush as they increase dopamine production in the brain. The sense of exhilaration, increase energy and activity, and wakefulness stimulants produce makes them popular for those seeking a boost in focus and performance. Some stimulants are legal to purchase without a prescription and fairly common, like caffeine. Prescription amphetamines are used to treat conditions like ADD/ADHD and have a high potential for abuse. The majority, however, are illegal and not available through legitimate channels.
Due to the potentially intense effects that stimulants can have on a person, there are several signs and symptoms of use that teachers can identify.
Drugs that impact the user’s perception and mental state are considered hallucinogens. They are predominantly illegal, with very few exceptions for religious purposes. Hallucinogens can be manufactured in a chemical form or found naturally occurring in plants and fungi.
Hallucinogens can include:
The effects of hallucinogens are mostly psychological, with few physical effects. Teachers can identify instances of use by students based on their behavior. Some hallucinogen effects include :
While marijuana is similar to depressants in that it can produce a relaxed sensation, marijuana is not a depressant. It is a naturally occurring plant found throughout the world with psychoactive properties. The leaves of the plant are usually removed, dried, and then used.The most common uses of marijuana are by smoking in a pipe or bong, as a “joint” cigarette, or a “blunt” (similar to the size of a cigar). The dried leaves can be mixed into food and consumed, or it can be brewed as a tea
Marijuana is the most commonly used drug. It has restricted legal use in some states and countries, and it can be used for recreational or medical treatment. It is one of the very few—if not the only—drugs to have no known overdose effects and of which there has never been an overdose death. Most of its effects include:
Changes in appetite, which can be a decrease, but most often is a marked increase referred to as the “munchies”
When a teacher suspects a student is using drugs or alcohol, in or outside of the classroom, they may not know how to approach the situation. Some are afraid of making a false accusation which may bring harm to the student—legally, academically, socially, or other effects. There are some conditions in which prescribed medications may have similar effects to some of the substance abuse situations discussed here, making it possible to misidentify a student’s behavior as drug or alcohol use. However, there is greater concern regarding a student’s potential drug or alcohol use than making a mistake if they actually have a substance use problem. Action should be taken carefully and quickly, but not in a rush.
Before taking any action, first, determine what made you think a student is using drugs or alcohol. Document observations for future reference: what you observed, when it took place, the name of the student or students involved, and so on. Instances of possession of illicit substances or active substance use will often be enough to alert parents and administration. Behaviors may require more evidence, such as the symptoms of particular drug or alcohol use. Look for changes in the student’s behavior like sudden absences or a decline in their academic performance. Keep in mind that stress and illness can also cause noticeable changes, so be reasonable in your conclusions (e.g., one bad grade does not equal drug use).
Once an educator has clearly determined that a student is likely abusing drugs or other substances, the teacher should notify the administration of the school (principal, guidance counselors, etc.), the student’s parents or legal guardian, and/or police. Even if you did not witness their active usage, this could lay the ground work for further assistance and help. In cases where it is evident that the student is using illicit substances, such as smoking marijuana on campus, steps should be taken immediately. Action should be taken should a student approach you with suspicions of a friend or classmate’s drug or alcohol use.
Should a student who is abusing drugs or alcohol approach you with their use, then you can notify administration, parents, and others with some restraint. Chances are the student wants help to stop their substance use and have approached you because they trust you. Immediately calling the police can destroy that trust and make it all the harder for them to willingly seek help again. In some cases, a teacher can act as a moderator for the student to talk with their parents about their substance use. Teachers can be a source of support at school during the student’s recovery. Information about a student’s substance use cannot be shared with other students. If you want to offer help to other students, do not refer to any other student you helped in the past.
It may be possible for a teacher to encounter drug abuse at school without the presence of the student. If you encounter drugs or alcohol, contact the proper authorities (administration, police) to handle their disposal and document the situation. The authorities may ask questions around how and where you found the substance, whom it belongs to, and more. They may also check the area where it was located for other substances and criminal evidence. Avoid disposing of a drug on your own, as you may accidentally expose yourself or cause damage like to the septic system if flushed. Avoid touching the substance(s), as police may collect evidence like fingerprints.
Each school has a set procedure in place for addressing drug and alcohol abuse on or off campus to address use by students. Educators should refer to this guide as an additional resource. Such information may be available in resources like an employee or student handbook. Do not go against school policy, procedure, laws, or any other rules and regulations in place to avoid harming yourself or the student(s).