ROCKPORT, Maine — The $5,400 the school board here set aside for a substance abuse counselor isn’t just another budget line, it’s a lifeline, according to Five Town Consolidated School District Superintendent Wayne Dorr.
“I have seen the destruction firsthand,” said Dorr who developed a school within a state hospital to work with students who had addictions. “Those kids came to my school every day, and I saw the absolute damage to their academic careers, their brains. Addiction is a lifelong scourge.”
Spurred by student comments and a number of drug-related suspensions, the school board asked a committee a few months ago to investigate hiring a substance abuse counselor for Camden Hills Regional High School. The school, located in Rockport, serves the towns of Appleton, Camden, Hope, Lincolnville and Rockport.
The committee’s findings were presented Wednesday night to the school board, whose members overwhelmingly voted to hire a local professional for $60 an hour to speak directly with students and teachers about substance abuse. The vote appropriated up to $5,400 for the rest of this school year.
The Rockport high school recently reported that 80 percent of its 12th-graders either drink or have drunk alcohol, and more than half of the students said they had tried or do smoke marijuana. The information, which comes from a 2010 statewide poll of high school students, also indicated that 20 percent of Camden Hills 12th-graders have abused prescription drugs and used hallucinogens. About 10 percent of those polled said they had used cocaine.
The data align with state trends. According to 2009 data from the state’s Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, Camden Hills Regional High School surpasses state averages only in alcohol use — about 75 percent of 12th-graders statewide said the drink or have drunk alcohol, compared with 80 percent at Rockport.
“I don’t think [Rockport] is substantially different than any high school, but I think we need to address it. If you have one youngster struggling with substance abuse, we have an obligation to serve that kid,” Dorr told the Bangor Daily News in a phone interview Thursday. “What’s happened here is — between the kids’ com-mentary to us and a number of suspensions during the fall for violating our substance abuse policy — that was enough of a red flag for us to respond, and this is us responding.”
Dorr would not divulge how many students have been expelled or suspended this year.
An information sheet handed out to board members Wednesday night by the substance abuse prevention committee states that the counselor will work from this month until June developing relationships with students, meeting with students who violate the school drug policy, evaluating students as necessary and consulting with staff. The counselor also will be available for drop-in visits by students.
The counselor, who likely will come from Harbor Family Services of Rockport, will be paid $60 an hour, amounting to about 90 hours of work if the entire $5,400 is used.
The board required that a report be submitted about the counselor’s work before any further money is requested for the service.
The only board member who voted against spending $5,400 for the counselor was Jim McKenna, who said that although he supports the idea, the district should seek counseling professionals to volunteer their time instead.
“I just think it doesn’t need to be a for-pay position,” he said Wednesday night.
Other board members disagreed, stating that the school will demand a lot from the counselor and that hiring someone would increase accountability, professionalism and consistency.
The new position does come as the school board begins discussing budgets for what is anticipated to be a difficult year. The $5,400 allotted for February through June this year will be funded through surplus MaineCare funds the high school had, Dorr said.