Costa Rica’s Security Ministry Works to Keep Drugs Out of Schools
By Dialogo November 19, 2012
SAN JOSÉ — Costa Rica’s Ministry of Public Security, alarmed at rising drug use among Costa Rican teenagers, now conducts unannounced, random drug searches in high schools. Since March, the ministry’s Regional Anti-Drug Program (PRAD in Spanish) has found illegal drugs — usually marijuana — in 65 percent of its raids, said program coordinator Fernando Córdoba Brenes.
Nine percent of Costa Rican teens admit to having tried marijuana, and 3.6 percent say they’re active pot smokers, according to a recent study by the San José-based Instituto sobre Alcoholismo y Farmacodependencia [Institute on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence].
Since its establishment in 2003, PRAD has grown rapidly. The program now operates in 600 schools throughout Costa Rica, with 73 specialized officers patrolling the streets near schools. These officers investigate complaints about drug sales within 500 meters of schools, and follow up on information about drug dealers inside schools themselves
“These officers are assistants for the Drug Control Police on the streets,” said Córdoba, noting that this year, PRAD has conducted a record 368 drug searches in 154 schools nationwide. That’s 30 percent of all searches since the program began nine years ago. In the past six months, he said, K9 police units uncovered 154 marijuana-filled cigarettes and 79 grams of pot.
Córdoba said the increase in seizures reflects an increase in cooperation from high schools — especially private schools that have up until now been resistant to let officials search for drugs for fear of negative publicity. This year, nearly 25 percent of Costa Rica’s private schools have already been inspected.
Patrolling the schools — and nearby streets as well
The recent changes aren’t focused exclusively on detection and punishment. In October, Costa Rica’s Ministry of Public Education revised its policy on drug interventions to offer additional support to students dealing with addiction. Before, students caught with drugs were simply expelled and left to find help privately. This system left teens with troubled pasts very little opportunity to turn their lives around, said Rita Peralta, director of Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia Adolescent Hospital in San José.
“Taking them out of school will solve the problem for the school, because they will have one fewer problem child inside,” Peralta said. “Rather than helping the student, it allows them to continue down the path they are on.”
Officials tracking the sale of drugs at school have uncovered a common pattern, Córdoba told Diálogo. Drug dealers give out free samples, and once students decide they want more, they receive 10 doses from the dealer — one to keep and nine to sell. The system is designed to entrap drug users, forcing them to continue selling in order to satisfy their new habit.
“A lot of times we find that a student will become indebted to the drug dealer and end up selling for him practically for free,” Córdoba said. “If they don’t follow the rules, they will get threatened. They are told they’ll be attacked or even killed.”
While PRAD officers monitor drug use in and around schools, drugs still freely flow on the streets. During the first 10 months of this year, according to official statistics, police arrested 43,768 minors for possession — seizing 81 kilograms of marijuana, 91,320 rolled joints, 45 kilograms of cocaine and 72,533 doses of crack.
PRAD and parental responsibility
The ministry’s guidelines now ask that, before taking extreme action, schools send children to a doctor to determine their level of drug addiction and possible routes for recovery. The new protocol provides a detail guide for teachers, laying out the most common signs for drug addiction.
Since 2001, Costa Rican law has required schools to educate students about drug use. According to a 2009 survey by the Instituto sobre Alcoholismo y Farmacodependencia, 19 percent of students said they learned something of significance about drugs at school.
PRAD is accompanied by an initiative called “Safe Classroom.” The project, in which 3,300 officers participate, conducts drug screenings but primarily involves K9 officers talking to kids about the dangers of narcotics. This year, 65,000 children attended those programs, said Córdoba.
While educators do their best to inform students, PRAD officials still say the best way to prevent children from doing drugs is through involvement by parents.
“Parental responsibility doesn’t end with the purchase of school supplies and uniforms,” said Juan José Andrade, director of the Costa Rican police. “On the contrary, this is where the work begins.”