School Climate and Substance Use Prevention: Will LCAP Help Reduce Student Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use?

A series of research studies confirms that student substance use is intimately related to school climate. This suggests that the new requirement that every school district in California adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that includes school climate improvement as a priority, has the potential to reduce adolescent substance use. This is one of those rare opportunities when multiple benefits to learning, health, and well-being may result, warranting a closer look at the implications of this research for LCAP development as well as substance use prevention.

Experimental research shows that an improved school social environment—including student participation in school, relationships, and a positive school ethos—predicts reductions in student substance use, according to Adam Fletcher and colleagues (2008).  They also found that school-level and individual-level observational studies consistently reported that disengagement and poor teacher–student relationships were associated with drug use and other risky health behaviors.  (A reading list of this research is provided below).

In recent studies, Sharon Sznitman and colleagues (2012) found that both male and female students in schools with positive climates reported lower levels of substance use.  In a second study by Sznitman and Daniel Romer (2014), perceived positive school climate (as measured by level of respect, clarity of rules, and problem management) was associated with a reduction in cigarette and marijuana initiation and a reduction in the frequency of cigarette use among high school students at 1-year follow-up.  In contrast, student drug testing was not associated with any changes in substance use and was deemed a less promising prevention strategy than school climate. In fact, the results showed that the only case where drug testing did have a negative association with student drug use was in schools with a positive school climate (and then only for female students), raising the possibility that the success of drug testing is contingent on positive school climate.

Consistent with these findings, Maria LaRusso and colleagues (2008) reported that adolescents who had higher teacher support and regard for student perspectives in their high schools were more likely to see their schools as having respectful climates and healthy norms of drug use, which was associated with lower levels of personal drug use. Students in such schools also reported greater social belonging and fewer symptoms of depression.

Among a sample of Northern Ireland youth, school-climate factors assessed at age 13 or 14 were related to less normative substance use at age 15 or 16 among a sample of Northern Ireland youth.  Positive teacher-student relationships and lower levels of fighting at school reduced the risk of daily smoking, weekly drunkenness, and weekly marijuana use. School disengagement increased the likelihood of cigarette and marijuana use among females (Perra et al., 2012).

There may be limits to the influence of school climate on substance use depending on the type and level of use and the age of the user.  Sznitman and Romer found that a positive school climate was not significantly associated with reductions in the initiation of alcohol use or with the frequency of alcohol or marijuana use, as measured by the number of days consumed in the past 30 days.  The authors speculate that perceived positive school climate may have weaker prevention effects with behavior that is viewed as normative in this age group, as prevalence surveys indicate is the case today with alcohol among high school students. Yet Perra and colleagues found positive associations for weekly drunkenness and marijuana use.  The difference in these findings may reflect that high school students consider regular but moderate drinking more normative than drunkenness.

The lack of a significant association between school climate and frequency of both marijuana or alcohol use in the Sznitman study does indicate that additional programs may be needed to target youth who are heavy users.  This is consistent with WestEd’s school climate model calling for implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports that include not only developmental supports and protective-factor strategies for all students but intervention programs such as student assistance and referral to treatment targeting students that fall through the cracks.

Even with these uncertainties, this research supports that school climate may have far reaching positive effects on the health as well as academic performance of youth. The potential adverse consequences of poor school climates, in turn, warrant more attention. School climate alone is not sufficient as a prevention strategy, but minimally it holds promise as an effective complement to other drug prevention efforts. A topic warranting further research is whether the positive effect of school climate on substance use may be greater in middle school, when even substance use is less normative than in high schools.

How does school climate influence young people’s drug use?  According to social control theory, as Sznitman and Romer observe, students who are attached to schools refrain from substance use (and other risk behaviors) because they internalize the prosocial expectations and norms encouraged by schools (Catalano et al., 2004; Hirschi, 1969; Libbey, 2004).  Fostering a positive school climate has protective-factor value as a drug prevention strategy (Blum & Libbey, 2004; Flay et al., 2004; Hawkins et al., 2001; Henry & Slater, 2007; Libbey, 2004; Resnick et al. 1997; Simons-Morton et al. 1999).  Research further underscores that feelings of attachment, school connectedness, and learning engagement are related to school climates that foster positive, respectful relationships between and among staff and students, a sense of physical and emotional safety, and provide supports that meet the needs of the whole child—developmental, social emotional, health, and academic.

Including school climate and pupil engagement in school accountability systems, as with the LCAP, may reduce student substance use—at least in regard to marijuana, cigarettes, and drunkenness—if districts make implementation of these positive conditions and student supports central to their LCAP goals. The strategies being implemented by California’s Safe and Supportive Schools grantees provide a roadmap for all districts to model in their LCAP development.

Anecdotal evidence indicates a pronounced retention in school prevention efforts in recent years.  The ending of federal Title IV (Safe and Drug Free Schools and Community Program), coupled with the pressure on schools to improve test scores and reduce spending, have left many California schools without strong support for their prevention efforts.

The good news is that the research reviewed here holds out the promise that an effective LCAP that makes improving school climate and pupil engagement central goals will help address this program gap. Prevention stakeholders need to become actively involved in LCAP development efforts in their school districts to ensure that this occurs. In the past, too little attention has been paid to school climate as a prevention strategy.

Readings

Blum, R. W., & Libbey, H. P. (2004). Executive summary: School Connectedness – Strengthening Health and Education Outcomes for Teenagers. Journal of School Health, 74, 231–232.

Booth, J. A., Farrell, A., & Varano, S. P. (2008). Social control, serious delinquency, and risky behavior: A gendered analysis. Crime & Delinquency, 54, 423–456.

Catalano, R. F., Haggerty, K. P., Oesterle, S., Fleming, C. B., & Hawkins,J. D. (2004). The importance of bonding to school for healthy development: Findings from the Social Development Research Group. Journal of School Health, 74, 252–261.

Flay, B. R., Graumlich, S., Segawa, E., Burns, J. L., & Holliday, M. Y. (2004). Effects of 2 prevention programs on high-risk behaviors among African American youth: A randomized trial. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 158, 377–384.

Fletcher, A., Bonell, C., & Hargreaves, J. (2008). School effects on young people’s drug use: A systematic review of intervention and observational studies. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 209–220.

Hawkins, J. D., Guo, J., Hill, K. G., Battin-Pearson, S., & Abbott, R. D. (2001). Long-term effects of the Seattle Social Development intervention on school bonding trajectories. Applied Developmental Science, 5, 225–236.

Henry, K. L., & Slater, M. D. (2007). The contextual effect of school attachment on young adolescents’ alcohol use. Journal of School Health, 77, 67–74.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

LaRusso, M. D., Romer, D., & Selman, R. L. (2008). Teachers as builders of respectful school climates: Implications for adolescent drug use norms and depressive symptoms in high school. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 386–398.

Libbey, H. P. (2004). Measuring student relationships to school: Attachment, bonding, connectedness, and engagement. Journal of School Health, 74, 274–283.

Perra, O., Fletcher, A., Bonell, C., Higgins, K., & McCrystal, P. (2012). School-related predictors of smoking, drinking and drug use: Evidence from the Belfast Youth Development Study. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 315–324.

Resnick, M. D., et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278, 823–832.

Samdal, O., Wold, B., Klepf, K. I., & Kannas, L. (2000). Students’ perception of school and their smoking and alcohol use: A cross-national study. Addiction Research & Theory, 8, 141–167.

Simons-Morton, B. G., Crump, A. D., Haynie, D. L., & Saylor, K. E. (1999). Student-school bonding and adolescent problem behavior. Health Education Research, 14, 99–107.

Sznitman, S. R., Dunlop, S. M., Nalkur, P., Khurana, A., & Romer, D. (2012). Student drug testing in the context of positive and negative school climates: Results from a national survey. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 146–155.

Sznitman, S. R., Kolobov, T., Bogt, T. T., Kuntsche, E., Walsh, S. D., Boniel-Nissim, M., & Harel-Fisch, Y. (2013). Exploring substance use normalization among adolescents: A multilevel study in 35 countries. Social Science & Medicine, 97, 143–151.

Sznitman, S. R. & Romer, D. (2014). Student drug testing and positive school climates: Testing the relation between two school characteristics and drug use behavior in a longitudinal study. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75, 65-73.

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