December 16, 2019
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How legislators can help schools prevent drug use

BDN file | BDN
BDN file | BDN
A hall in Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast.

Schools are struggling to support students in ways that could prevent substance use and addiction. Their efforts tend to be either nonexistent or uninformed, according to a BDN survey of Maine’s schools. But administrators said something important in the survey: They want to do more.

Experts know how they can. Matthew Chinman, a senior behavioral scientist at the research organization RAND Corporation, suggested this: Require every school to have a prevention program, fund the programs and hire a small staff to support the schools.

Even though most principals want to help and believe it’s at least partly their responsibility to prevent drug use, prevention will inevitably fall by the wayside unless there’s a statewide requirement for evidence-based prevention programs.

But it’s not enough to require prevention efforts. The state also needs to fund them. Anyone who says it will cost too much should examine the long-term savings associated with effective prevention. It’s cheaper than treatment or incarceration, and programs don’t actually cost that much.

One such program, LifeSkills, is estimated to cost $16.75 per student in the first year. After the first year, it costs about $5 per student. Based on the 2015 enrollment count, that would cost Maine $679,022.50 to put in place for all sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders for the first year, and $202,690 every year thereafter. The state budget is more than $3 billion per year.

The classroom-based program for all students, regardless of whether they’re at risk of using substances, teaches them personal self-management and social skills, and how to resist pressure to use drugs. Studies have shown the lessons reduce adolescents’ use of tobacco, alcohol and drug use in both the short and long term.

Funding effective programs isn’t enough though, either.

Chinman suggested that Maine hire a small team to travel around the state advising schools on what programs to implement and how to train their staff, and to deal with problems as they come up. Because each school in Maine would only be able to choose from a few programs, this team would become experts in each one. The schools could also lean on each other because they’d be working through similar challenges.

In February, Maine House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe sponsored a bill that would require the education commissioner to “develop a model policy that uses evidence-based curriculum” that would be available for public school students in grades six to 12.

The bill didn’t pass. McCabe said the Maine Department of Education “talked about how they felt it was unnecessary to come up with a standardized curriculum.”

“They acted as if they were going to do something, but I’m unaware of them having done anything,” McCabe said. He wants to continue to bring the issue to light, especially considering it has bipartisan support.

Maine schools have been attempting prevention on their own, and it’s clearly not working. Ten percent of schools still use D.A.R.E., and most don’t have an evidence-based program in place, according to the BDN survey of schools.

Now is the time for Maine’s legislators to support them in preventing addiction.

 



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