TWENTY-TWO midshipmen are being investigated for drug use among the 4,000-member brigade at the U.S. Naval Academy. That's one-half of 1 percent. Maryland's public school system, by comparison, this fall released a survey showing that nearly one-third of high schoolers had used alcohol or drugs, as did one-sixth of their younger siblings in middle school. Among a few thousand young people, you're going to have some illegal drug use. That would be one reaction to the news out of Annapolis. And it would be the wrong reaction.
The academy is supposed to stand for certain qualities above the norm: honor, integrity, bravery. Your average college doesn't get tourists awed by the sight of the students lining up to go to lunch. Your average college doesn't have as its mission the nation's defense. Your average college doesn't ask as much of its students' lives -- nor guarantee as much in return.
The young men and women accepted there know that going in. And if teen-agers sometimes have trouble grasping the big picture, recent history has provided some sobering, real-life lessons: Scandals involving hazing and cheating caused abrupt and wrenching detours in the lives of young people forced to leave the school. (In a positive vein, perhaps repercussions from the 1992 cheating scandal did spur midshipmen to confess quickly or pass on information about drug use this time.)
As for the academy leadership, Superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson has been true to his pledge about dealing with problems more aggressively and forthrightly. He now must re-examine the academy's anti-drug program. The academy has been randomly testing 300 midshipmen a week. Yet it had not uncovered drug use before the arrest last month of two midshipmen, allegedly found with LSD in a Glen Burnie motel. That prompted reports about other cases. Perhaps random testing must occur during or closer to the weekends, if that's not already standard procedure.
The Navy and Marine officer training facility may be nearly surrounded by water but it is not an island; its applicant pool increasingly comes from broken homes and a society of de-emphasized values and glamorized decadence, like every other university. That's the academy's burden -- one from which it must not shirk.