More than a quarter of public middle and high school students say both gangs and drugs are present at their campuses, according to a survey released Thursday by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Those roughly 5.7 million students nationwide are also more likely than their counterparts at private and religious schools to smoke, drink and use drugs, said Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman and founder of the center, which has been surveying youth for the last 16 years.
Califano said the survey illustrated “a trajectory of tragedy for millions of children and their parents.”
Forty-six percent of teens report gangs at public schools, compared with just 2% of teens at private and religious schools. Forty-seven percent of public school teens said drugs are used, stored or sold at school, compared with 6% of private school students.
The “most disturbing finding,” Califano said, is that 1 in 3 middle school students say drugs are used or sold at their school — a 39% increase since last year.
Not everyone reacted with alarm.
David J. Hanson, a professor emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam and a longtime critic of surveys by Califano’s group, said Califano was “making much ado about nothing, because if we compare 2010 to 2001, there’s been no change” in middle school numbers.
In 2001, 31% of public middle school students said drugs were present at school, compared with 32% in 2010. Similarly, though Califano noted a “steady rise” since 2006 in students who report the presence of drugs at their high school, Hanson said that when compared with 2001, there again had been no change.
The annual survey, timed to coincide with the back-to-school season, was conducted in April and was based on responses from more than 2,000 students and 456 parents from across the country who were surveyed by phone or over the Internet.
Hanson, who reviewed the survey and its methodology, said numerous data points were “simply deceptive,” because they relied on second-hand information, some of which was supplied by students whose parents could see or hear their responses. The tendency of students to report what they have heard at school but not seen skews the portrait of what actually is occurring, he said.
Califano said his organization expected that some students might have underreported their own use of substances or alcohol.
Students from Southern California and other areas in the Southwest were among the most likely to report gang activity, Califano said.
He said students at schools where drugs and gangs were present were almost 12 times more likely than private school students to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol and five times more likely to use marijuana.
Students consistently rate drugs, alcohol and tobacco as the “top concern” facing their age group, Califano said.