WASHINGTON -- More than one quarter of middle and high school students say gangs and drugs are present at their schools, according to a survey released Thursday by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Those roughly 5.7 million students -- compared with students at private and religious schools, where gangs and drugs are far less prevalent -- also are more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs, said Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman and founder of the center, which has been surveying youth for the past 16 years.
Forty-six percent of teens report gangs at public schools, compared to just 2 percent of teens at private and religious-based schools. Forty-seven percent of public school teens said drugs are used, stored or sold at school, compared with just 6 percent of private school students.
Students from Southern California and other areas in the Southwest were among the most likely to report gang activity, Califano said.
The "most disturbing finding," Califano said, is that one in three middle school students say drugs are used or sold at their school -- a 39 percent increase since last year.
Not everyone reacted with alarm. David J. Hanson, a professor emeritus of sociology at State University of New York at Potsdam and a longtime critic of surveys on substance use and other behavioral issues, said Califano is "making much ado about nothing, because if we compare 2010 to 2001, there's been no change."
In 2001, 31 percent of middle-schoolers said drugs were present at school, compared to 32 percent in 2010.
Similarly, while Califano noted a "steady rise" since 2006 in students who report the presence of drugs at their high school, Hanson said that when compared to 2001, there again had been no change.
The annual survey was conducted in April and was based on responses from more than 2,000 students and 456 parents from across the country who were surveyed by phone or over the Internet.
Hanson, who reviewed the survey and its methodology, said numerous data points were "simply deceptive" because they rely on secondhand information, some of which was supplied by students whose parents could see or hear their responses. The tendency of students to report what they have heard at school but not seen skews the portrait of what actually is occurring, he said.
A former secretary of health, education and welfare under President Jimmy Carter, Califano said students at schools where drugs and gangs are present are almost 12 times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol and five times more likely to use marijuana.