Scared Straight

It’s no secret that Andover students drink or do drugs. In fact, the majority have. According to the 2022 State of the Academy (SOTA), 55.3 percent of Andover students have consumed alcohol recreationally and 28.6 percent have consumed drugs. Compared to 2019, where 33.8 percent of students had consumed alcohol, this number has increased 17.8 percent in the past three years. 

Combined with rising nationwide substance use rates, the Covid-19 pandemic, and reports that high-achieving schools experience rates of substance abuse at two to three times the national average, education and action around drugs and alcohol use is necessary at Andover. As such, our opportunity to hear All-School Meeting (ASM) speaker Stephen Hill share his story of addiction and recovery last Friday was a valuable one. 

However, though members of our board and students across campus recognized the importance of Hill’s message, some questioned his approach to the presentation. Hill dissuaded even one-time drug and alcohol use, and he hoped to take personal responsibility for the “bad choices” that led to his addiction. Many understood this framing as both neglectful of broader societal circumstances surrounding substance abuse and uncomfortably close to an abstinence-only, “scared straight” approach to substance education. 

Hill’s ASM reflects a common trend in rhetoric surrounding substance use at Andover. Whether in EBI, leadership training, or similar campus forums, programming on drugs and alcohol tends to center avoiding substances entirely, rather than minimizing risks surrounding use. Indeed, our education seems to focus on the extremes of substance use. Policies such as Sanctuary are targeted towards situations where students are heavily impaired or chronically using. Student leaders are also primarily trained on scenarios of egregious misuse or rule-breaking.

Less attention, however, is given to the “gray area” cases that make up the majority of substance use on campus — casual drinking, smoking with friends, or party environments. Indeed, according to the 2022 SOTA, 38.4 percent of students have consumed drugs and alcohol on campus, whereas only 3.6 percent have been “sanctuary-ed.” While this figure could have been influenced by a variety of factors, it is still suggestive of a wide gap between more commonplace versus extreme cases of on-campus substance use. 

Andover should therefore make efforts to close this gap, prioritizing risk management over abstinence. The reality of substance use at Andover is that drugs and alcohol use is not only common, but normalized. Due to a combination of campus culture, peer pressure, and typical adolescent exploration, any expectation that students avoid substances entirely is unlikely. Dissuading drug and alcohol use without providing additional support for students actively using or struggling with substances disincentivizes quitting substances or managing addiction. Andover should not only emphasize the “before,” but also prioritize the “after” of substance use.

In recent years, a harm reduction model of approaching substance use has become the ideal in addiction management. Acknowledging social and cultural realities of drug and alcohol use, harm reduction seeks to minimize the risks — physical, social, emotional, mental, and medical — associated with substance use. While this method would necessitate changes when applied to a high school setting, we hope that Andover incorporates more of these principles in its approach to drug and alcohol use on campus. 

For instance, Andover should provide peer support groups, similar to Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, for students seeking mental and emotional support through addiction. Social support is often instrumental in overcoming substance abuse, and more of these resources should be instated, and those that have already been implemented should be made more widely available to students. 

Moreover, our disciplinary system should also recognize the often nonlinear and complex path to recovery. As Hill attested, his own road to sobriety included multiple relapses and periods at different rehabilitation centers. Our disciplinary system, centered around Growth and Accountability Plans (GAPs), should take this into account and avoid increasing punitive severity in response to relapses. 

Crucially, Andover should prioritize peer and social support systems in substance abuse management. As Hill mentioned in his speech, his addiction spiraled once administrators banned him from playing sports, removing a core source of joy and support. Andover should also consider substance abuse with an eye towards identifying similar social systems — which ones can support, and which ones can degrade. SOTA data also indicates that students’ attitudes towards drugs and alcohol are significantly impacted by their surroundings, whether those be residential, athletic, or social. A consideration of social support systems for students should not be absent in discussing substance use at Andover.

Despite a host of complicating factors — from our status as a high school to a campus culture that normalizes substances — our approach towards substance use and addiction management on campus should be one of risk minimization over abstinence. Prioritizing student wellness, emphasizing social support, and addressing gray areas of drug and alcohol use, Andover should take a more holistic view of substance management, addressing not only influences, but also the social and mental consequences of drug and alcohol use on campus.