NYC High School Tests New Harm Reduction Drug Education Course

By Victoria Kim 04/18/18

Safety First aims to empower kids to use critical thinking and research skills to make healthy decisions.

High school students learning in a classroom

A New York City high school is the testing ground for a new kind of drug education—which, instead of urging kids to “just say no,” tries a safety first approach.

The Safety First curriculum, developed by the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit that promotes drug policy reform, was introduced at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan in March, and concluded this month.

The curriculum was designed to discourage substance use, but to also acknowledge the possibility that some kids will choose to experiment. Students are taught how to be safe even if they choose to use drugs and alcohol.

Instead of DARE’s total abstinence approach, kids are empowered to use critical thinking and research skills to make healthy decisions.

“I’ve learned so much just from teaching it,” health teacher Drew Miller, who piloted the curriculum at Bard, told Crain’s New York. “It puts a lot of power in their hands and is super trusting of them to take the knowledge and make the best choices for themselves.”

The curriculum will be evaluated and revised before a final version will be available this coming fall, but it’s not definite how widely Safety First will be adopted.

Like DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), Safety First tries to guide young people away from using drugs and alcohol. It also prepares kids for real-life situations that they may find themselves in should they choose to use.

“For example, abstinence-only education may tell young people that they should refrain from using drugs because they could overdose,” explains the Drug Policy Alliance. “Harm reduction drug education explains how to recognize the signs of drug overdose, how to respond and how to get help if they fear that a friend is overdosing.”

Advocates of drug policy reform believe that this approach is better-suited for today’s informed young people, as opposed to the original version of DARE from the 1980s.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who once said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” doesn’t seem to think so. Last year, he was quoted as saying, “DARE is, I think, the best remembered anti-drug program today. In recent years people have not paid much attention to that message but they are ready to hear it again… We know it worked before and we can make it work again.”

To its credit, DARE has moved away from fear-based rhetoric and tried to adapt to the times with a modern take on the program that emphasizes teaching kids good decision-making skills. The keepin' it REAL program, which according to Scientific American was created with the help of prevention scientists, is a more interactive approach to drug education.

The 10-week course focuses on empowering kids to make tough decisions in high-risk situations utilizing the four ways to say no: Refuse, Explain, Avoid and Leave.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr