Staff network helps students fight substance abuse

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GRAPHIC BY ELENA SU
Four full-time social workers are divided between the high school’s two campuses, and they are responsible for helping students cope with substance use and abuse.

Every day, about 7,800 Americans try illicit substances for the first time. Over half of these new users are under age 18, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Each year, the country pays a heavy price in the form of lives cut tragically short: a reported 5,455 people aged 15-24 died from drug overdoses in 2017.

Unbeknownst to many at the high school, students struggling with substance use and abuse can seek help from a network of staff, including social workers, deans and outside programs. Staff help maintain a stable, supportive environment by focusing on education. In these programs, students have opportunities to learn about coping strategies and the potentially harmful effects of drug use.

According to Dean of Students Lisa Redding, her job as a disciplinarian involves meeting with students about consequences for substance use in school. Punishments include suspensions and meetings with the Head of School Anthony Meyer, but Redding believes that the high school considers the health of each student as critical.

“Sometimes there’s consequences involved, but there’s always the sense of, ‘Okay, you need support because you’re turning to substances, so how can we help you?’” Redding said. “There’s always a connection to the social-emotional support that students need, regardless of whether there’s a consequence attached or not.”

Programs within the high school itself can also provide aid and education for students. According to social worker Paul Epstein, a partnership between the high school and Brookline’s health department allows Mary Minott, the Program Coordinator of the town’s Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention for Youth program, to work at the high school full-time.

Additional social workers, such as Epstein, are stationed around campus and are responsible for helping students develop coping strategies and reduce their use of illicit substances.

According to Epstein, some of the cases he sees that involve marijuana use are actually self-referrals. Students frequently seek the support of social workers if they find it difficult to manage their drug addiction.

“We would begin by evaluating how much of the drug they’re doing, assessing the severity of the situation and then develop a plan going forward,” Epstein said. “Ideally we would want a student to find a social worker because they realize they need help, but sometimes we end up learning about a kid who needs help because they actually got into trouble around it. Maybe they were caught with a substance, or maybe a teacher thought they were high during class. That’s another way kids can get onto our radar.”

According to Epstein, students are able to confide in social workers because all non-threatening matters are kept strictly confidential. If the student is at risk of harming themselves and others, it is at the social worker’s discretion to report them to authorities such as parents, hospitals and treatment programs.

“If someone comes in and says, ‘I think I’m addicted to prescription pills,’ and it’s medically dangerous or life-threatening, then I probably wouldn’t want to sit down and do counselling with them during X-block,” Epstein said. “I would call their parents, schedule a checkup and refer them to a substance abuse program that’s more intense.”

Redding agrees that when the student’s well-being is at stake, the priority should be on their health. She maintains that the school has no hard-set policy about academic requirements during rehabilitation; during this period, the student’s health is the most important, Redding said.

“With any health issue, and this is a health issue, we want students to get the level of care they need. For some, it may be an afternoon program. For others, it’s a full-day program,” Redding said. “Whatever a student needs, we’re going to support it.”

Redding emphasized that the student’s health should be their first priority, especially when they are addicted to using or abusing substances.

“In my opinion as both a dean and a parent, I want the student to get the health help they need, and academics can take a backseat. Some students in this building are having a hard time in class because they’re feeling like ‘I have to go smoke,’” Redding said. “It’s hard to learn when you’re having all these other feelings and issues, so we need to deal with that in order for our students to learn better in class.”

Additionally, organizations such as the Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) program help students acclimate to their workloads after extended absences. Students work with their teachers to cover class material and complete assignments, according to Redding.

Traci Wojciechowski, the Regional Director of Education for the Caron Treatment Centers, said an instrumental portion of preventing drug use involves educating students about the importance of abstinence.

Wojciechowski works with a program called LifeSkills Training, which teaches children how to be assertive. She said that education frequently begins in the Brookline elementary schools in order to enforce good habits and build foundational knowledge that the student then expands at the high school. Redding said that the high school has adjusted their curricula to reflect students’ experiences.

“What we’ve known throughout many years at the high school is that many students are coming to us already having experimented. It’s not that we don’t focus on education, now––vaping, for example, it’s all over the news, it’s an epidemic, people are dying from it,” Redding said. “So we’ve incorporated that into our 9th grade wellness classes and our advisory curriculum. We’ve done some public service announcements on the television, and we’re working to do education campaigns.”

GRAPHIC BY ELENA SU
According to data from the Brookline High School Health Survey, the usage of drugs and alcohol among high schoolers in Brookline was continuously declining between the years 2013 and 2017.

Programs like Peer Leadership, lead by Minott, help teen mentors to spread information about drug use and educate younger students in the elementary schools. Wojciechowski said that such programs are helpful because students are often more receptive towards messages that come from people of the same age.

Ultimately, according to Epstein, an important part of preventing student substance abuse lies in relying on healthy coping mechanisms instead of illicit substances.

“There’s been more and more emphasis on mindfulness activities and education about restorative justice, and part of that is about de-stressing the student body. A less stressed student body, a happier, well-adjusted student body, is less likely to turn to illicit substances to manage their emotional upheavals,” Epstein said.

Ultimately, Epstein maintains that an important feature of the high school’s substance abuse prevention program is its ability to offer personalized alternative stress-relief options for the diverse student body.

“Part of my goal with every student is to provide them with a menu of options; the obvious intervention is to drop one or two classes, lighten the workload a bit, and it’s amazing what that can do to relieve some of the stress,” Epstein said. “Sometimes it’s talk therapy, sometimes it’s a tangible change like listening to music or exercise. Every kid is different, and a different thing works for every single student.”