Educators frustrated by student drug use

Despite a quarter century of prevention programs, Bainbridge students still drink and take drugs.

Now, with survey results pointing to undiminished tobacco, alcohol and drug use, the Bainbridge Island School Board has asked the district’s Health Committee to find solutions.

“This is a serious problem,” district Administrator Clayton Mork said. “People have been trying, yet here we are still faced with this problem.”

Last year, a survey of adolescent behavior indicated that half of Bainbridge 12th graders had used alcohol recently, while 37 percent admitted having smoked marijuana in the past month. The results reflected statewide findings.

“We have numbers that mirror the rest of the country,” said Faith Chapel, assistant superintendent and Health Committee member, “but those aren’t great stats.”

The committee met with school board members at Thursday’s regular meeting, to report on activities of the past six months.

After reviewing survey results, the committee identified so-called “barriers to success” in keeping students away from drugs and alcohol.

The committee has targeted three areas of particular concern – parent awareness, student involvement, and finding a common understanding of the nature of the problem.

Interviews with Bainbridge High School students are under way through a series of focus groups, and participants said they were pleased that a number of students have come forward on their own to join the effort.

The committee also plans to create a “substance abuse prevention guide,” a booklet for distribution to parents around the district.

Board members expressed support for the effort, but frustration with district assessment of a problem that can seem intractable.

“We do a lot of surveys, (and) we know there is a problem,” school board president Cheryl Dale said. “We never take action.”

The challenge

The current push to end substance abuse in Bainbridge schools is the latest in a series of efforts that date to the mid-1970s.

For most of the last decade, the curriculum relied heavily on the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

DARE sent local police officers into fifth grade classrooms to teach kids to “say no” to drugs.

But by 1999, when the program was discontinued, the program was under fire at the national level. Some critics contended that the program – which offered information about specific drugs – was actually educating students about which drugs to use.

And while kids loved the officers’ visits, the expensive program didn’t seem effective, Dale said.

A 1998 survey identified a variety of youth “social deficits,” such as not feeling valued by the community. In response, a “developmental assets” program was devised to promote student well-being.

And as organized programs come and go, individual teachers and counselors have been a constant in working with kids.

For seven years, the district has contracted with Cascade Recovery for the services of counselor Murphy Boughner.

Other approaches, like the Party Patrol, seek to accomplish focused goals.

That program, which started in 2000, includes a fall assembly for parents to network and learn strategies for preventing teen “partying.”

Bainbridge Youth Services sends high school teens into classrooms; Woodward Middle School uses students to counsel peers.

But, as last spring’s survey suggested, nothing has reduced substance abuse overall. Many believe that without a common, community-wide understanding of the problem, progress is unlikely.

“How you define the problem does influence how you address it,” health committee member and high school nurse Heidi McKay said Thursday. “Some people think it’s not a problem unless people are getting arrested.”

McKay said messages become further diluted when there are parents who abuse substances with their kids.

School board member Bruce Weiland and others say prevention-oriented asset-building should be accompanied by short-term “intervention” strategies.

Other school officials say some young people can be expected to use drugs, no matter what program is in place.

But the board is committed to addressing substance abuse, members say.

“Things can change,” Weiland said. “Look how the attitudes about drinking and driving have changed – look at how we view smoking in public places now. But it’s little change by little change. We need to institutionalize a higher-profile effort. It’s just like education – it’s an ongoing commitment.

“The issue stays on the front burner forever.”

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