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Drug-free schools, drug-free society. Schools can't solve the drug problem on their own

`I TELL my kids to go home and take a pad and pencil, and count the drug ads on prime-time TV,'' says David Peterson, a social studies teacher at Albany High School in Albany, N.Y. ``We live in a society that worships drugs,'' he adds. ``We're now getting exactly what we deserve.''

It is two weeks since Secretary of Education William Bennett put out his ``Schools Without Drugs'' booklet, and as Mr. Peterson's comments suggest, the issue cuts deeply into the grain of American life. Most educators are pleased that the federal government is getting into the act, however belatedly. ``This is what school people have been talking about for 15 years,'' says Gene Hawley, principal of Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H. ``We are delighted help is coming.''

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But they worry that the concern will prove to be an election-year spasm that disappears after November. And at least some think the politicians are seizing upon the schools as much to avoid the problem as to address it. ``People want cheap answers and symbolic solutions,'' says Joel Moskowitz of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

At the very least, such educators say, there will be no progress unless adults -- not just parents, but media executives, corporate advertisers, and others as well -- are willing to live up to the standards they expect young people to follow.

``It's as though the schools are responsible for something adults created,'' adds Bob Hochstein of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ``It's really mind-boggling.''

School officials are as concerned as anyone about potent new drugs like crack. Previously, the price of cocaine had served to keep it away from most school-age children. But for all the recent headlines, teachers and administrators say that, overall, drugs are less visible in the schools today than they were just a few years ago. Certainly things are nothing like the early '70s. ``You don't see the glassy-eyed look you saw 10-15 years ago,'' says Douglas Deason, principal of Shasta High School in Redding, Calif.

``There has always been a drug problem, honey,'' says a former Albany High School teacher, who recalls that back in the '60s, they were told to watch out for girls who ``wore long-sleeve dresses all the time'' to hide the needle marks on their arms.

If there is one thing on which educators seem to agree, it is that alcohol, and not hard drugs, is the No. 1 plague of teen-agers today.

``The drinking has gotten really bad,'' says Patrick Welsh, who teaches at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. A year ago, in a survey of over 500 high school administrators, Dr. Moskowitz found that those rating the drug problem ``serious'' had declined substantially in the last five years, while concern over alcohol abuse showed no such drop. Yet polls of the public at large put drugs near the top of school concerns, with alcohol way down on the list. ``People don't want to hear about alcohol and tobacco,'' Moskowitz says, in no small part because they use it -- or sell it, or advertise it -- themselves.

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Some administrators are skeptical that the schools can do much more than they have already. ``The history of school efforts on drug education has been abysmal,'' says Larry Cuban, former superintendent of schools in Arlington, Va., and now a professor at Stanford University. In the past, these efforts have consisted mainly of descriptions of different drugs and warnings as to their ill effects, which served as much to bestir students' curiosity as anything else. And the warnings often have been so exaggerated -- the 1938 cult-film classic ``Reefer Madness'' is an example -- that young people just didn't believe them. ``Kids would look at this and say, `Come on,' '' says Catherine Bell-Bolek of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But most educators acknowledge a need to try, not because schools are the root of the problem, but simply because they are where young people spend their days. There are signs, moreover, that alcohol and drugs may push the schools to address underlying issues that they have long neglected, such as the way advertising, television, and other influences attempt to shape people's thinking and behavior.

The Health Behavior Research Institute at the University of Southern California, for example, has developed a curriculum on ``Social Influences'' that is being used extensively in the Los Angeles area as well as in other parts of the country. The course tries to make students aware of the negative influence of peers, advertising, even of parents, and to ``give them the social skills to stand up and resist,'' says Brian Flay of the institute.

Students may even gain the confidence, Dr. Flay says, to talk to their parents about their substance abuse. ``It's hitting home on a couple of things,'' says Robert Kingston of the El Segundo Junior High School in Los Angeles, which is trying the program. ``Such as, `Maybe my Dad does drink too much.' This last is crucial, because if there is another thing educators agree about, it is that parents are going to have to play a much larger role. Most of the drug action, after all, takes place after school and on weekends, not in the school itself. ``This is really a parent problem,'' Mr. Deason says.

The problem is not just parental neglect, nor even the casual attitudes that at least some parents have regarding drugs. (Deason points out that cocaine is the drug of choice for affluent baby-boomers whose children are now entering junior high.) Young people have a keen radar for hypocrisy, and what they see at home often conflicts with what people expect the schools to instill. ``They listen to us talk about the dangers of alcohol,'' says Peterson, ``and then they go home and father is putting down his sixth double martini.''

To address the problem, ``you have to start with TV,'' says Jim McClure, the head guidance counsellor at T. C. Williams. And, ``you have to do something with the parents.'' But please, he adds, ``don't just give me another `family life' or `substance abuse' counselor.''

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