POSTED ON BEHALF OF AUDREY VAN GILDER
Thinking back to my own elementary and middle school experiences, I’m becoming more aware of the shortcomings of my school district’s health education approach. While it was no doubt better than some programs found in public schools (health classes were either required electives or part of the curriculum for several middle school years), simply inserting a tsunami of information into a school day filled with many other educational priorities is usually ineffective. Specifically, my health education about drug use and abuse was limited, outdated, often unrealistic and – generally – not part of a peace-promoting curriculum.
The consequences of such programs become clear later in a child’s education, when exposure to drugs and alcohol is more common. Among certain communities, a resurgence of drug abuse has many concerned about the necessity of reforming health education programs to be more holistic, inclusive and – although it’s not always stated explicitly – part of broader peace-based curricula. This UNICEF manual for educators provides an excellent guide to developing such a program:
It is general enough that educators can adapt or excerpt it to their needs, but also very thorough and based on self-evaluation, skills development, and reflection. I envision American middle and high schools reworking their health education programs to take into greater account the realities of learners’ communities, pressures put on young people by society, as well as the own self-determination, problem-solving capability and autonomy of students.
I think there are great opportunities to encourage introspection and creativity within drug education programs. Young students aren’t clueless; even if drug abuse is not of huge concern to them or their particular community, attitudes toward drugs and alcohol definitely change over time, and early drug education programs must take into account this transformation. This video was created by students at my friend’s high school to directly confront drug abuse in the community with honesty and reflection: http://www.neuquaondrugs.org/
A program called CASASTART addresses this by assessing risk, basing its programs on the fact that young people who lack human and social support systems are more likely to continue and intensify substance abuse that may not be as much of a danger to young people with those systems in place. You can read more about CASASTART and many, many other alternatives to health education programs here: http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/Controversies/20070111184521.html.
Two of the pillars of peace education that such an initiative will address are community building and transforming conflict nonviolently. First, a realistic peace-based drug education curriculum can’t exist within a vacuum, as I believe mine did. Honesty and pragmatism is required on the teacher’s part, as is a safe learning space and strong sense of community within the classroom. Second, if drug use and abuse is understood as a likely conflict that young people will face, steps can be taken to transform that potential for conflict – and to avoid all the other conflicts that can follow drug abuse – before it even happens. If students are encouraged to be self-aware and resilient, and have a more holistic, peaceful, and informed idea of how they might react to drugs in real life, the dangers of drug abuse in a community will be lessened.