Posted by: Mothers Against Teen Violence | March 2, 2012

TCU Scandal by Joy Strickland

Colleges Must Offer Abusers Compassion 

[An edited version of the op-ed below appeared in the Dallas Morning News on February 22, 2012]

  A six-month long investigation of illegal drug trafficking involving TCU students ended last week with 22 arrests. Similar incidents connected to the school in years past went virtually unnoticed. But this time, the small private university quickly found itself in the national spotlight, apparently because four players on TCU’s undefeated, Rose Bowl winning football team could be counted among the 15 students ensnared.   

Speculation abounds concerning the potential impact the arrests may have on the image of the school and its highly regarded football team. 

It should be said that the behaviors of a very small percentage of the student body should not define the school. Considering the prevalence of drugs, one wonders whether any campus, community, or profession could withstand the hot light of such close scrutiny and emerge unscathed. 

On the positive side, the arrests may chip away at the spectacular myth that white students must drive to the seamy side of town to buy their drugs from thuggish black or brown drug dealers. Although this stereotype is regularly reinforced by the media, the truth is that all races use illegal drugs at similar rates. In fact, young white males are somewhat more likely to sell and use drugs than their counterparts. The TCU students rounded up last week, like most other illegal drug users, bought their drugs from people in their community. 

Though not surprising, it should be cause for alarm that the drug buys included prescription pain killers (opiates). Not only is this category of drugs extremely addictive, but when combined with alcohol they are also deadlier than any street drug. Opiates account for the fastest growing category of drug addiction in America. According to the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, about 120,000 Americans annually end up in the emergency room after overdosing on opiod pain killers, which also account for 13,800 of the 26,000 overdose deaths recorded annually, surpassing heroin and cocaine. 

Drug trafficking on or off a college campus is correctly defined as a problem of supply and demand. Zero tolerance policies of the sort in place at TCU, are punitive in nature. They may offer instant gratification to the parent within us, but in the end, whether applied to drug users or low-level dealers, such policies are patently ineffective at reducing the demand for drugs. 

Harm reduction strategies are far more effective. The term refers to reality-based, public health strategies aimed at reducing the harms caused by drug use and the harms caused by drug prohibition. Harm reduction values science, compassion and equity. 

An example of this approach on a college campus could assure that policies afford sufferers of addiction the same care, concern, and privacy as students suffering from other diseases; or replacing zero tolerance with a progressive sanctions model wherein drug users and low-level dealers could be placed on probation and counseled for a first offense, and expelled only as a last resort. 

Soon the spotlight will grow dim and business as usual will return to the campus. But for the students involved, academic standings and athletic careers have been dealt a blow that may prove insurmountable. The expulsions and prosecutions come at a time when college tuition is more costly than ever, and education remains the greatest single predictor of earnings and success in life. Perhaps all involved could have been better served by policies that are less punitive and more compassionate.

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