Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series produced by the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. The entire series will be published online at www.sherwoodvoice.com. Next: Many people do not seek help because of stigma.
FORT SMITH — Local schools are doing what they can to monitor students so as to intervene more quickly when a child develops a substance-abuse problem or relapses into one, area school officials said.
According to Prescription Drug Abuse by Arkansas Youth, a report by the state Office of the Drug Director, 73 percent of teen study respondents say they use drugs to deal with the pressures of school; 65 percent say to look cool; 65 percent say to feel better about themselves; 55 percent say to deal with problems at home; 40 percent because being high feels good; and 26 percent because drugs are fun.
"Teenagers have a hard time knowing where they fit in," Van Buren High School counselor Renee Henson said.
Regarding prescription painkillers, 56.4 percent of teen study respondents said they use them to relax or relieve tension; 53.5 percent to feel good or get high; 52.4 percent said to experiment; 44.8 percent said to relieve physical pain; and 29.5 percent to have a good time with friends.
"It’s sad to think there are children who have such severe problems they feel they have to resort to drugs to deal with them," Van Buren High School Principal Eddie Tipton said.
Drug Testing At Greenwood, Alma
Greenwood Superintendent Kay Headley said her district randomly screens students from middle school through high school.
About 80 percent of the district’s students are in the drug-screening pool. If a child participates in an extracurricular activity or drives a car to school, he or she is placed in the pool, she said. Students who test positive are tested again.
If a child does not pass a drug test, the school mandates counseling and educational programs for the student and his or her parents, Headley said. Mental health counselors meet with students and families. Professional development on student drug use is provided for teachers and is included in the district’s teen suicide intervention training. Home visits sometimes provide information that aids the counseling process, Headley said.
The district’s Parent Center provides educational resources to parents, and Greenwood also provides a series of parenting classes each year. Resources are listed in the student handbooks and educational fliers are available in each school building, Headley said.
Alma High School Assistant Principal Nick Spencer said officials started random drug testing this year at Alma High School.
Alma teachers have been trained to recognize warning signs of possible drug abuse. School counselors have several resources to help students and parents, including local agencies, hot lines and referrals to outside counseling programs.
Fort Smith Schools
The Fort Smith School District does not differentiate among types of drugs used by students, said Communication Director Zena Featherston Marshall.
The Fort Smith district also shies away from applying a label such as "substance abuse" to students, she said.
If a student has drugs in school without permission, such as a doctor’s medication prescription specific for that child and verified by the child’s parent or guardian, the child is considered to have brought drugs to school, regardless whether the drug brought in is a prescription drug or one considered illegal, Featherston Marshall said.
Featherston Marshall said counseling and referrals made for Fort Smith students who have brought prescription drugs to school without permission are made through the same kind of process they’d go through if they’d brought a substance such as marijuana to school.
Van Buren Schools
Besides an annual Red Ribbon Week focus on awareness, Van Buren School District officials hope to offer a sober high school called Hope Academy. It will be part of the high school, housed with the Career Center on the old J.J. Izard school campus.
The first such school in the state, it will offer regular curriculum classes as well as group sessions and after-school activities starting in August. From 3-6 p.m. on school days is the main drug abuse time for adolescents, Henson said.
Students who come out of treatment programs and return to their regular high school setting face a 75 percent relapse rate, Henson said. With Hope Academy, the district hopes to make a significant dent in the relapse rate.
Henson said students can be referred to Hope Academy from Horizon, an adolescent treatment center at Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center, or they may be court-referred by a juvenile judge. School counselors also will encourage students who they think would benefit to try it at least for a semester.
Tipton said Hope Academy is not a "we gotcha" kind of thing, but rather a "we’re going to help you" program.
When students are first caught using drugs, they generally say they started using at least two years earlier. "Most of the time, it is escapism, not recreation," Tipton said.
Over the next couple of years, Van Buren will institute some changes aimed at bolstering a healthy environment, such as increasing parental involvement in decisions regarding the issue. It will mean community meetings and asking tough questions, Tipton said. Parents often have good ideas and perceptions. They know the situation in the community, and they know children, Tipton said.
Although some educators shy away from such a direct approach because they don’t want to risk giving the parents the impression there is a drug problem in the school, Tipton said, he prefers a straightforward, transparent approach.
School administrative staff are making small cultural changes, too, such as being more visible among the students. This type of change can have a positive effect on students, not just regarding substance abuse, but also emotionally and academically, Tipton said.