Imagine you’re a high-school senior, sitting with friends in your Monday morning physics class. You notice that one of the popular athletes is absent but think nothing of it – he might have skipped class to go to the beach, you think, or maybe he caught that final cold of the season that’s been going around.
Suddenly a uniformed highway patrol officer appears. Your jaw drops as she informs you and your classmates that the absent student, along with several other people you know, were killed in a car wreck over the weekend. You’re in shock, traumatized. Suddenly your upcoming prom and graduation don’t seem quite as exciting anymore, now that several of the people you wanted to share it with are gone.
Now imagine your unspeakable anger a few hours later, when officials at your school call an assembly; produce the “victims” of the alleged wreck, who are very much alive; and inform you that the entire debacle was a “scared-straight” exercise to discourage drinking and driving.
Such was the case at the San Diego-area El Camino High School last month, as this June 12 CNN article reports. Although El Camino administrators had planned to reveal the truth in an assembly later in the school day, students were so visibly upset that many administrators and counselors clued them in to the hoax earlier on, the article reports.
School officials are defending their actions – “They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized. That’s how they get the message,” said guidance counselor Lori Tauber – but many others in the community allege that El Camino High went too far. Superintendent Larry Perondi mentions in the article that the program will be revised, but he doesn’t say how.
That a mental health professional such as Ms. Tauber would even consider endorsing a program which purposely causes trauma to participants is bad enough in my opinion, but are scared-straight programs such as these even effective? An old USA Today article by Michael Haines suggests otherwise: at Haines’ school, Northern Illinois University, the number of students who reported drinking heavily rose after NIU put a “scare-tactic” campaign into place in 1989.
Haines’ proposed alternative? “Social norms programs”, which stress the fact that most student drinkers do in fact choose to drink responsibly, despite peer and media assumptions about Animal House-style collegiate alcohol use. Such programs have been implemented on college campuses with “astonishingly” positive results: self-reported heavy drinking by Hobart and William Smith Colleges students dropped 40% in 4 years after such programs were implemented, Haines says.
Of course, drunk driving remains a problem (see these statistics for 1982-2006 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), and educators and lawmakers should always be looking for solid, rigorously tested programs to disseminate important messages about health and safety. That said, the teachers and officials behind the El Camino High scared-straight program disaster would do well to put in a bit more research before coming up with any other public health campaigns in the future.