Confronting Drugs in our Schools

Posted May 21, 2009, at 9:25 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:08 p.m.

“I think we have a reputation for being a drug school,” a Hampden Academy freshman said.

“Most smoke weed before school or after school but nobody is dumb enough to do it at school or on school property,” a Brewer High School senior said.

“Drugs are a problem that I have seen throughout all four years of high school,” a Bangor High School senior said. “People talk about it every day. They think it’s the coolest thing ever.”

“The fact that it’s socially accepted is the biggest problem,” a parent of a Bangor High School student said.

Bangor-area students say classmates are using and abusing drugs — mostly marijuana and some diverted prescription pills — and that there is a problem at their high schools.

They say they’ve seen drug deals going down in classrooms, in hallways and at lunch, have smelled marijuana being smoked on a school bus and have listened as fellow classmates go into detail about their drug exploits.

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And even though fellow students see what is happening, “no one ever says anything,” a Hampden Academy freshman told the Bangor Daily News, which is withholding the names of the students in this article to protect their identities.

The death of a Hampden Academy senior in March, and the recent charges against a Newburgh man for providing prescription pills and marijuana believed to be involved in his death, has pushed the problem of teen drug abuse into the spotlight.

Young people often feel invincible, and don’t think experimenting with drugs and alcohol will hurt them, Hampden Police Chief Joseph Rogers said earlier this month.

“It’s always, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’” he said, adding that it’s hard to drive home the dangers especially since medicine cabinets are filled with prescription pills, marijuana is available to those looking for it, and alcohol consumption is commonplace.

Rogers said, in his opinion, there is a drug problem at Hampden Academy, which serves children from Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport.

“I would be sticking my head in the sand if I said there wasn’t,” he said. “It’s a concern for us,” he said, stressing that Hampden is not alone. “When I talk with other police chiefs, they have the same concerns.”

Local school officials are not denying drug use by students, but say they can’t be with them 24-7 and, mostly, today’s youths are experimenting with drugs at home or at parties.

“I think that this is a real serious issue,” Brewer Superintendent Daniel Lee said recently. “For us, it’s worrisome. The majority of students are drug-free and the drug users and today’s youth are experimenting after school,” he said.

Mostly, “They’re good kids but sometimes make some very bad decisions,” he stressed. “Our job is to help them make better decisions.”

It’s that choice that area school administrators have spent years trying to address, SAD 22 Superintendent Rick Lyons said recently. Hampden Academy is the high school for SAD 22.

“I think a large part of our role as a school district is to engage our community” in the conversation about “how to build on the virtues … to mitigate the negatives,” he said.

Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said, “Drug use is a complex societal issue” that requires parents, school officials, law enforcement and the community to work together.

“This is an issue,” she said. “We all know it’s an issue.”

Bangor’s approach

One senior at Bangor High School is so worried about her fellow students that she wrote a letter earlier this year to both Webb and Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia about what she says she sees on a daily basis.

“[I] am concerned with the drug problem that my school has,” she wrote, saying she had “seen hundreds of incidents where drugs have been involved.”

She also forwarded a copy to the Bangor Daily News, and agreed to sit down with a reporter at a local coffee shop. She arrived with her mother, and two other recent graduates.

The senior spoke of when her classmates laughed and ridiculed her after she asked, “What is that smell?” when a group of teens in the back of the school bus she was riding in were smoking marijuana.

She learned at least one lesson that school day: “When I smelled it again … I knew what it was,” she said.

In her letter, she wrote, “I feel like the teachers are turning a blind eye.”

That is not the case, Webb said.

“If [teachers or staff] witness something they are mandated to report it,” she said.

Educating students from a young age about how drugs affect the body and the pitfalls of drug abuse is how Bangor school officials deal with the problem, Webb said.

The curriculum uses the anti-drug message over and over and helps students build a relationship with teachers, according to Webb.

The K-12 Comprehensive Chemical Health Plan, created in 2007, outlines the Bangor school system’s substance abuse prevention and education plan. The plan is a step-by-step program to teach students the medical and legal hazards of legal and illegal drug use, the impact of drug use on their families, friends and the community, and what people can do to prevent drug abuse.

The document contains everything from grade school worksheets to presentations to high school quizzes — all about how drugs work and how they can be dangerous.

It stresses “the power of education,” Webb said.

Bangor also hosts parent education forums about drugs and alcohol, but Webb said participation is often very low. The most recent workshop was about identifying illegal drugs.

“These things all help, but … we have to work together,” she said. “Schools can’t do it alone.”

Brewer’s approach

“I know a lot of kids who smoke weed,” an 18-year-old Brewer High senior said. “I’ve never experienced drugs myself, [but] I’ve seen kids smoking weed. But not at school.”

He has, however, noticed fellow students at school with red, bloodshot eyes who smelled like marijuana.

Having information about what students are doing is a key to addressing problems, Brewer’s superintendent said. That, and not avoiding the problem, he said.

“We do take a pretty active stand,” Lee said. “We regularly deal with this issue, and we always take steps to stop it.

“Do we do look in cars? Yes. Do we consciously stop students who are acting strangely? Yes,” he said. “Every time we catch a kid, they get a ticket” from police. “We have a pretty low tolerance.”

Middle and high school students in Brewer take a confidential survey about their alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use, and the data is used to guide curriculum changes and have led to the hiring of additional personnel to whom at-risk students can turn for help, Lee said.

The Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey is conducted by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Substance Abuse under the state’s Bureau of Health and Human Services.

Most schools in the state, including those in SAD 22, take the drug use survey.

Bangor does not. There are a number of reasons Bangor opts out of the survey, including current policy, cost and loss of class time, Webb said.

The anonymous MYDAUS survey asks students whether they have used marijuana, alcohol or tobacco in the last 30 days, and if they have participated in binge drinking in the last two weeks, and if they have ever used prescription drugs, inhalants or stimulants.

Brewer’s numbers are lower than state and Penobscot County averages and 2006 survey figures, “but in my opinion, the numbers are still too high,” Mark Farley, chairman of the Brewer school board, said when the figures were presented at the board’s Dec. 1 meeting.

In addition to the drug use survey, another key is to talk about the problem openly and find solutions, Lee said. He spoke candidly about the recent arrest of an 18-year-old student that ran in the newspaper.

“I met with him and said, ‘Please don’t cast your fate into the wind,’” Lee said.

Hampden’s approach

Two Hampden Academy freshmen admitted recently that they have smoked marijuana, saying it was not during school hours, but said they have seen the drug being sold in hallways and in the cafeteria at their school.

The 15-year-old Hampden youth said he tried it once, and the 15-year-old from Winterport reported that he smoked on a regular basis and recently decided to try to cut back.

The Winterport youth said marijuana use wasn’t a big deal because it’s “just weed. Herb.”

“Everyone I hang out with pretty much smokes [marijuana], besides a select few,” he said. “It’s their choice.”

Guiding students down a drug- and alcohol-free path is what school leaders are trying to do through a “comprehensive K-12 curriculum” that emphasizes how the body works and the dangers of drug use, the SAD 22 superintendent said.

Students also take the drug use survey.

“We’ve used that, to a very large degree, to create the landscape,” Lyons said. “It’s been very instrumental” in helping to identify what programs to offer students to help guide them along a healthy path.

An on-site school health coordinator, who is a direct connection to Acadia Hospital in Bangor, was added in recent years to help address problems identified in the survey, he said. Public forums also have been held to educate parents and the community about how to identify and address drug and alcohol problems.

The MYDAUS results also identify pro-social behaviors in students’ lives, such as volunteering or participating in clubs, organizations and activities. And it asks if they have strong connections at home and in the community. It’s these good indicators that Hampden officials try to enhance, Lyons said.

The Hampden juvenile, who is a high school athlete, said school activities keep him busy, and that kids who don’t take advantage of their options sometimes turn to drugs.

“Small towns are kinda boring,” he said. “That probably has something to do with it.”

The Hampden teenager said he tried marijuana because “I had the opportunity to do it” and took it.

The Winterport student said he has been smoking weed for a while, but added, “I’m trying to calm down on it” now because his parents have discovered his drug use and have stressed the pitfalls of his actions.

His mom said it is important her teens understand the consequences of their actions, especially since mixing drugs and alcohol can be deadly.

Rumors about the cause of death of a local boy, who was found in late March in a gravel pit off the Back Winterport Road, put a spotlight on student drug use at Hampden Academy, both teens said.

“It was a wake-up call for a lot of kids,” the Hampden boy said. “I think a lot of kids realized it’s a lot more dangerous, and things do happen.”

Community involvement

Because teens are using drugs outside of school, only a few have been disciplined by the districts this school year for drugs.

In Bangor, where the high school has approximately 1,500 students, a dozen students have been disciplined for drugs, alcohol and tobacco, Webb said.

In Brewer, where there are 761 high school students, the number of drug-related incidents is between 15 to 20, Officer Liz Kelley, the school resource officer, said.

At Hampden Academy, which has around 775 students, the number of student drug-related incidents this year stands at 22, Lyons said.

When they are caught, students are treated the same as adults, area law enforcement leaders say.

“We handle them like everybody else,” Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said recently.

Kelley, who is assigned to the high school, said Brewer students know if she smells drugs or suspects drug use, they’re in trouble.

“We’re very aggressive … we go look for it,” she said.

No single entity can effectively fight substance abuse alone, Brewer Police Chief Perry Antone said.

“The overall impact of drug use, whether at a teenage level or adult level, is increased crime,” he said. “If you don’t attack it or address it as a team, as a partnership, you’re fighting an uphill battle.”

All three school units have school resource officers, provided by their community’s police department, and allow confidential reporting by staffers and students.

“This is a community issue, as much as it is a school issue,” Antone said. “When you look at addressing substance abuse, you have to do it communitywide.”

Police and the school system must be there to help, but the first line of defense must come from parents who are sometimes reluctant to lay down the law at home, Rogers said.

“It’s tough love that you have to practice,” he said. “You have to put restrictions on kids. There have got to be rules and consequences for breaking the rules.”

Police often are confronted with parents trying to protect their children at all costs, Rogers said.

“We run into a good percentage of parents who are more obstructive than helpful,” he said, adding that some “parents may be poor role models, too.”

There is a “zero tolerance” policy at school in Bangor, Brewer and Hampden Academy, and all three use progressive discipline, and repeat offenders face expulsion. There also are stiffer penalties for those who sell or furnish drugs or alcohol to other students.

Through the state’s Healthy Maine Partnership, Health and Community Services is working with area schools to review substance abuse policies and “look at ways we can support them with what we do so they don’t have to do it themselves,” director Shawn Yardley said.

Area schools have good programs in place to identify and attempt to guide at-risk youth, he said, but there is one area that is lacking — available treatment facilities.

“What do you do if you don’t have someplace to send them?” Yardley said.

Yardley and partnering area agencies are working on opening a recovery center for Greater Bangor, he said, adding the group is looking for a building to call home.

“The idea is to try to support recovery,” he said.

How schools deal with drug problems “can’t all be about discipline,” Lee said. “Somehow we have to find a way to expand treatment options.”

While area students and school officials say diverted prescription drug use is relatively low, Yardley said the troubling problem is on the rise in the city, region and state.

“We can go from experimenting to full-blown addiction in a weekend,” because of the nature of some narcotics, he said.

“It scares me right to death.”

The ‘cool’ factor

It may be hard to believe, but some students, including the Bangor High senior who wrote the letter, “are afraid to admit they don’t do drugs,” because they will be ostracized, she said.

“It’s hard for me,” the honor roll student said. “I’ve seen so many things.”

The Brewer senior said while he is drug-free, he has been told detailed stories about what his fellow students are doing, beyond marijuana and alcohol.

“I’ve heard of kids doing Ecstasy and I know of a couple of kids doing ’shrooms,” which is slang for psychoactive or hallucinogenic mushrooms, both of which are classified as hard drugs and carry serious physical and legal consequences for those who use them. “I’ve never seen any kids with anything but marijuana. I’ve never seen any drugs like heroin or stuff like that.”

The two Hampden Academy students and the Bangor senior echoed his statement. The Bangor student, however, added she has witnessed one student selling his Ritalin for $1 a pill.

The 18-year-old also told stories about her father’s drug and alcohol abuse and how he ruined her family with his drug addiction, which “started when he was in high school.”

That is why she is so concerned about fellow students.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug,” she said. “You take it and it’s an experiment and it leads to other things.”

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