August 19th, 2010
12:58 PM ET

Survey: Gang presence increasing in public schools

Nearly a third of students aged 12 to 17 in public schools say their schools are "infected" with both gangs and drugs, according to a survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA).

According to the report, 66 percent of high school students said their schools were drug-infected, a steep increase from last year when 51 percent said their schools had drugs. In the newest survey, one in three middle-schoolers say drugs are used, kept, or sold at their school. Last year, 23 percent of children in middle school said they had drugs in their school.

Joseph Califano, founder and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, said it's not clear what's behind those steep increases, except that "wherever there are gangs, there are drugs, it's pretty safe to say."

The report found that children who go to schools where both gangs and drugs are present are five times more likely to smoke marijuana, 12 times more likely to smoke, and near five times more likely to have a friend or classmate who uses drugs such as acid, cocaine, or heroin.

In the study, there were vast differences between public schools and private and religious schools. Nearly half – 46 percent – of teens at public schools reported the presence of gangs in their schools, compared with  2 percent of teens at private and religious schools.

"We have to get the gangs out," Califano said. "We cannot improve education in public schools where there are gangs and drugs."

Califano said parents need to be their kids' best advocates.

"Parents really need to raise hell," he said. "If there were asbestos, they wouldn't send their kids to school until every particle of dust were cleaned up. If they had a job and there were gangs at work, they wouldn't go."

Dr. Janet Williams, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Substance Abuse, agreed that parental involvement is key to teenagers succeeding in an environment riddled with high risk behaviors.

"Educational standards are higher where parents are involved," said Williams.

She recommended that parents stay engaged in their teenager's life. That means asking questions if several elements of their personality start to change and supporting a teenager's passions.

"Really good parenting has a lot to do with noticing the good," said Williams. "Help them recognize what they want to do, what their passion is."

"You want them to feel proud of who they are... so they maintain respect for themselves and others."

– CNN Medical Associate Producer Caitlin Hagan contributed to this report.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.