Drug policy should focus on teaching, not punishment

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Jesus Velazquez got caught at school with a marijuana pipe in his backpack. What happened next is exactly what shouldn’t take place if a school district’s goal—or, from a larger perspective, a community’s goal—is to get kids who make dumb mistakes back on track. 

Jesus was suspended for 10 days. While out of school, he got behind in his classes and struggled to catch up when he returned. Nine months later, Jesus got an unexpected letter stating that he had to show up for an expulsion hearing. He accepted an offer to go to a diversion program instead of being expelled, but it took three months for him to land a spot. Jesus ended up failing most of his sophomore classes and is now facing a fifth year in high school. 

Obviously, schools cannot let students carry around drug paraphernalia or drugs without taking some swift action. Teenagers must be steered quickly away from substance abuse, even in this day and age, when recreational use of pot is legal in two states and being caught with an ounce or less warrants only a ticket and a fine in more than a dozen states. Even Jesus, who told his story to Deputy Editor Sarah Karp for this issue of Catalyst In Depth, admits that he was wrong. But no one was hurt in the incident. Jesus wasn’t accused of selling drugs. He didn’t have a gun or other weapon. Take him at his word that he is basically a good kid and was shocked to be threatened with expulsion months after the fact.

Surely this was a case in which a non-punitive response—mandatory drug education or participation in community service—made better sense. Too many students who have committed non-violent drug offenses end up like Jesus, the target of a heavy-handed approach that kicks them out of school—the very place that, with the right resources, could steer them in the right direction. Most often, students of color are the target. Schools with significant white enrollment, including those in the suburbs, are less likely to expel or arrest students for drug violations. 

We’re not talking about offenses involving heroin or cocaine or meth, hard drugs with more serious health risks than marijuana and that warrant felony charges outside schools. The majority of these incidents involve 30 grams (about an ounce) or less of marijuana. 

Under a 2012 Chicago decriminalization ordinance, Jesus, if he were older, might have gotten only a slap on the wrist. The ordinance allows police to issue tickets and fines to adults carrying small amounts of pot. But harsher penalties are still in place for juveniles: Offenders younger than 17 still face arrest in such cases.

These arrests help fuel the sky-high arrest rate in Chicago Public Schools, which dwarfs the rates for New York City and Los Angeles public schools, even though both districts are far larger. 

It’s appropriate to take a tough stand against drugs with teens. A ticket and a fine aren’t enough. Arrests and expulsions are too much. What’s needed is education and teaching.

One suburban principal put it best: “We backed off of kicking kids out. We want to help the kids. We want to get them on the right track.” 

This issue of Catalyst In Depth was written as part of a project headed by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The Social Justice News Nexus at Medill is wrapping up its inaugural fellowship cycle, with reporting fellows—Sarah Karp among them—and Medill graduate students completing reporting projects on drug policy and the impact of drugs on Chicago. Stories will be published on the Social Justice News Nexus website at sjnnchicago.org as well as by the project’s media partners, which include Catalyst and our sister publication, The Chicago Reporter. The stories will be showcased in a multi-media Pop-Up Magazine event scheduled for October.  A new fellowship cycle will also be announced in the fall, focusing on mental health care in the city. That’s a topic Catalyst covered in our award-winning summer 2012 issue of Catalyst In Depth on mental health trauma in schools. You can find the issue on catalyst-chicago.org.