Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said yesterday that educators are not tough enough on student drug use, and spoke approvingly of a principal who called police every time he caught a student with a controlled substance.
"Kids need to have a clear, insistent message that says: 'Don't do it. If you're doing drugs, you're gone,' " Bennett said after a meeting with 60 local drug officials and undercover agents at Fort Myer.
In schools plagued with drug problems, he said, officials should crack down to the extent that students "should not be able to distinguish between the role of police and principal." If school officials are tough enough, Bennett said, there will be little need for undercover agents in the schools, except "from time to time and place to place."
Among the places at which a tough antidrug policy has worked, he told the officials and agents, is Northside High School in Atlanta, where Principal Bill Rudolph told parents that if he caught their children with drugs at school, he would make two telephone calls, "and the second one will be to you."
Bennett said drugs in the nation's schools are a growing problem that sabotages educators' ability to teach. Referring to recent publicity that students at McKinley High School in the District allegedly wore beepers to class to keep up with their drug sales, he said the problem "has really reached the point of being outrageous."
An annual University of Michigan survey of high school seniors found that a five-year decline in teen-age drug use leveled off last year, and a record number -- 17 percent -- have tried cocaine.
Most Washington area school systems have policies that call for five-day suspensions the first time a student is caught using or possessing drugs, and longer suspensions for subsequent offenses. Among the strictest policies is that of Prince George's County, which seeks expulsion the second time a student is caught using or possessing drugs and the first time a student is caught selling drugs. The District is the only area jurisdiction that does not permit expulsion, but the school board is considering a change in policy.
Bennett's visit to Fort Myer was part of his recently launched crusade against student drug use, an effort that has included talks with undercover agents and school officials in several cities. He plans to publish a report this summer outlining the extent of the problem and recommending strategies to combat it.
Meeting with the agents in a dimly lit room in which camera coverage was restricted, Bennett sought advice on how to reduce student drug use. One bearded man told him that school boards should set strong policies against student drug users, and "not make him a hero when he comes to school the next day" by allowing lax policies. Bennett asked if others agreed. Heads nodded around the room.
Several agents complained that teachers and principals are reluctant to go after student drug users because they consider that a parental responsibility, and they don't want to make their schools look bad by acknowledging a drug problem.
"All adults [should] have the same message to kids," Bennett replied. He said principals should be told they will not lose their jobs if they acknowledge school drug problems.
In some cases, the agents said, teachers are worried that lawsuits may arise if they report a student for using drugs and the student is found to be innocent. Virginia law protects a teacher from liability for reporting a problem, one agent said, but it is a concern in other jurisdictions.
The agents told Bennett that student drug dealers usually are not addicts. "It's a business," one said. "It's a money thing." But Bennett later said that some dealers need a constantly expanding supply of customers to pay for their own habits.
How young are today's drug users? "Sixth grade . . . 10, 11, 12 years old," one man replied.
Another agent told Bennett that parents often know that their children are selling drugs in school. "Sometimes they're in it together," he said. Said another: "There is always an adult involved. They should get the maximum" punishment.