Just last month, seven students from the Los Angeles Unified School District overdosed on fentanyl, and one of them occurred on a school campus.
We have the choice to decide what kind of crisis we are facing and the strategies with which to address it. But we cannot continue the decades of failed, punitive policies that led to the current opioid epidemic. More than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in a single year for the first time in history in 2021 — a 28% increase from the previous year.
Already, educators are drawing lines. LAUSD Board President Kelly Gonez announced a constructive approach that recognizes this as a “community crisis” that must be addressed through “proactive education and support.”
Others, like Apex Academy Charter School, where two students who allegedly sold fentanyl are enrolled, are going backwards by conducting random searches of students in classrooms and considering bringing in drug-sniffing dogs. The Drug Enforcement Agency and the L.A. Police Department are now poised to intervene further.
But we cannot continue the decades of failed, punitive policies that led to this crisis.
For decades, the United States has responded to drug use with punishment and criminalization. The so-called “War on Drugs” has cost trillions of dollars since the 1980s, and what do we have to show in return? The number of incarcerated people and drug overdoses have both increased fourfold since then. Most of them are people of color.
Black and Brown communities have been devastated by poverty and incarceration, and educational environments have become school-to-prison pipelines. Indeed, some students are more likely to encounter drug-sniffing police dogs or surveillance cameras rather than nurses or counselors at their school. Public schools in California already have twice as many police than social workers and more security guards than school nurses.
Instead, we must recognize the opioid epidemic as what it is: a health crisis. It is a problem that cannot be fixed with handcuffs and punishments. Rather, it can be solved only by providing students with care, support, and compassion.
Students need support and healing. We know that arresting or disciplining students has never actually abated student drug use. Instead, these practices associate substance abuse with shame and punishment, further pushing substance dependency into the shadows where it has grown unaddressed.
One recent study found that the “traditional policing approach to drug use-related crime did not reduce arrests or incarceration and was associated with a risk of future overdose fatalities.” Another study found that suspending or expelling students has the highest correlation with drug use, suggesting that students have more opportunities to use drugs when they are pushed out of school into unsupervised environments. This is also a racial justice issue, as research confirms that punishment for drug-related behavior targets Black and Latino/a youth, even though White youth are just as likely to use or sell drugs.
Real solutions require examining the root causes underlying why students turn to drugs in the first place. Student drug use does not happen in a vacuum. Adolescent drug use is correlated with childhood trauma from abuse, domestic violence, and major illnesses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long recognized that young people who use high-risk drugs are at greater risk for “mental health problems and suicide” more likely to “experience violence, such as physical and sexual dating violence, and be bullied, threatened, or injured.”
Decades of disinvestments in our schools have left us unprepared to address this escalating health crisis. We must meet this challenge by investing in more health resources in homes and in schools, including school counselors, psychologists, psychiatric social workers, and nurses.
We also must focus on scaling up evidence-based solutions that have proven effective at saving lives, including overdose prevention centers, fentanyl test strips, safe supply, drug decriminalization, public education campaigns, and low-barrier access to naloxone and other rehabilitative and life-saving therapies.
Our students have proven to be more resilient than we could ever imagine during the pandemic. But they have had to endure enough. We owe it to them to fix the opioid epidemic, not by stripping away their civil rights, expelling them, or putting them in prison where they are even more likely to suffer from substance abuse.
Rather, we must do the hard work to address the root causes behind substance abuse, to help our students make the right choices, and to support their recovery if they make a misstep.
Amir Whitaker is senior policy counsel and Victor Leung is director of education equity at the ACLU of Southern California.