D51 moves to cut drug expulsions with counseling
School District 51 will attempt to deflate a recent increase in drug-related expulsions by introducing a drug-counseling pilot program later this month.
Students are suspended for five days the first time they are caught using or carrying drugs or alcohol at a District 51 school. The second time they are caught with drugs or alcohol at school, they are expelled for a year.
Drug-related expulsions in the district increased 13.6 percent year-over-year to 25 in 2010–11, and 29 have been recorded this year in the first semester alone. Drug-related suspensions followed a similar path, leaping from 85 in 2010–11 to 135 to date in 2011–12. Eighty-eight students were suspended for drug violations this year during the first semester alone.
The new pilot program, tentatively scheduled to begin after spring break, will offer students suspended for a first-time drug offense the chance to shrink their suspension period from five days to two if they attend four, one-hour, drug-education, counseling sessions. The group sessions will take place once a week at Colorado West Mental Health. Students or their parents would have to pay up to $65 for the counseling, although some insurance companies cover the cost. Any student who does not complete the sessions will have to serve the remaining three days of suspension.
Despite having the third-most drug-related expulsions among the district’s four high schools this year, Fruita Monument High School will pilot the program because one of its vice principals, Todd McClaskey, thought of the pilot idea. He asked Colorado West to provide the counseling, which is an adapted version of drug-education counseling already provided at the facility, according to Colorado West Mental Health & Substance Abuse Therapist Rocky Martellaro.
Martellaro will host the counseling sessions and discuss types of drugs and their effects on the body. Any student can participate, but the pilot program will refer suspended students to the counseling sessions.
“Any time a student is facing a five-day suspension, it’s nice to offer them a learning opportunity to reduce that suspension,” McClaskey said.
Fruita Monument High School Principal Jan Keirns said she was principal at a high school in Oklahoma when that school rolled out a similar program 12 years ago. She said the program helped some first-time offenders steer away from drugs and alcohol. She said the goal of the program is to help students learn from an experience rather than sit at home for a week.
“By and large we have great kids. At high schools, you get a small percentage who don’t make the right choices. We want to educate them about the issues,” she said.
McClaskey said he and fellow members of the district’s discipline committee started looking for a way to prevent first-time drug offenders from getting expelled for a second offense after drug-related suspensions and expulsions increased at local high school during the past two years. McClaskey said marijuana in particular has become more prevalent in schools, and District 51 Executive Director of High Schools Bill Larsen said marijuana likely accounts for 95 percent of this year’s drug expulsions.
McClaskey said he saw an increase in marijuana violations around the same time medical marijuana dispensaries opened. He said some students were caught at school with marijuana that had a dispensary label on it, although the students said they bought it at other locations, including parks. McClaskey said marijuana suspensions have decreased slightly this year compared with last year at Fruita Monument.
District 51 Safety Coordinator Tim Leon said marijuana expulsions are up districtwide, but he believes it’s because marijuana has become more accepted nationwide in the last few years. The district also lost its funding a few years ago for drug education programming, such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education).
Leon said if dispensaries alone were to blame for an increase in drug violations, marijuana expulsions would be non-existent in Fruita and Grand Junction and higher in Palisade, which has the only remaining dispensary in Mesa County, but Palisade has the fewest drug-related expulsions so far this year and in the two previous years.
“We just really as a society have accepted marijuana as a recreational drug now. When I was growing up, alcohol was the drug of choice. Now it’s marijuana,” Leon said.
Alcohol expulsions still exist, with one in 2009–10, three in 2010–11 and four so far this year. Alcohol suspensions followed the same path, with seven two years ago, 14 last year and 18 so far this year.
Leon said he rarely sees expulsions for meth and heroin, and he expects to see two or three cocaine suspensions and about five prescription-drug suspensions each year.
Although young men make up the majority of students suspended for marijuana, Leon said more young women are getting expelled for marijuana use, with four expulsions so far this year. That follows a national trend. Leon said he hopes the pilot program will influence both genders to spread the message to their peers that drug use is not acceptable.
“With this program, I think we’ll be able to impact the first-time or recreational or occasional users and help them quit and be ambassadors,” Leon said.
Larsen said he hopes for the same outcome as Leon. He added people should not assume any high school needs the counseling program more than another because some schools have higher expulsion rates but also more supervision by school resource officers. Grand Junction High School, for example, has the most drug expulsions in the district, but it also has three school resource officers who patrol the school at varying times or together, while Fruita Monument and Central have one officer who is routinely at the school.
Still, the numbers are about more than officer supervision, as there are fewer school resource officers overall this year and last year than there were in 2009–10.
“No doubt, it shows a trend up, which is why we’re definitely doing something,” Larsen said.
Central High School also is doing something: providing in-school, drug-education counseling, he said.
If Fruita Monument’s drug-counseling program shows a reduction in second offenses, the pilot program may spread after about a year to other District 51 high schools, Larsen said.
Pilot programs are not allowed to last longer than two years, in accordance with School Board policy.