2009-05-28 / News

NK School Committee considers tough new substance abuse policy

By Eileen M. Daly

Committee held a one agenda meeting this past Tuesday to consider tough new policy changes governing substance abuse by students.

The current policy prohibits students from using alcohol or other substances on school grounds or at school-sponsored events. The new policy changes, directed primarily at student athletes, students involved in school-sponsored extracurricular activities, and student leaders, would hold students accountable year round, whether in school, at school sponsored events or not.

According to these policy changes, "Students who decide to hold a leadership position or be part of an athletic team must make the commitment to refrain from the use of alcohol, drugs or steroids. Students are considered to be in violation of this policy if they use or are in the presence of, possess, consume (including being under the influence of) and or distribute, other than as prescribed by a physician for personal use, any controlled drug and/or intoxicant or steroid at any time (see Year Round Expectations,) whether during school, or at any schoolsponsored activity, on school property, or at locations off school property."

Another policy change involves cyber images and states, "Any identifiable image, photo, or video which implicates a student to have been in possession or in the presence of alcohol and/or drugs, or portrays actual use, or crime shall be confirmation of a violation of the code of conduct. Since there is no way to establish a time frame for when or the location of where the image was taken, it shall be a responsibility that the student must assume."

A presentation by John Underwood, a former NCAA All American International-Level distance runner, World Masters Champion and Olympic coach, underscored the importance of abstinence for all students, but emphasized athletics and high-level performance.

According to Underwood, current research indicates that one night of social drinking undoes 14 days of training. Underwood highlighted recent scientific brain studies that confirm the extremely deleterious effects that drugs and alcohol abuse have on brain function. These negative consequences are even greater for young people whose brains are still forming, Underwood said.

A Chemical Health and Safety Program, designed by Underwood, was introduced in New York State five years ago and continues to be utilized in that state with good effect. One of the fundamental components of this program is the code of conduct clause, which specifically addresses the issue of substance use and abuse by athletes and/or students participating in school-run programs. "Participation in these programs is a privilege," Underwood said. He stressed the fact that the commonly held belief that involvement in sports serves as a deterrent to substance abuse is a myth. Instead, Underwood said, consequence beliefs are what deter students from using and/or abusing substances. The chemical health and safety program Underwood advocates is designed to increase these consequence beliefs, he said.

An impassioned presentation by Robin Monica, a North Kingstown parent whose son Jeff was killed in a car accident involving alcohol in 2003, followed Underwood's presentation. Monica pleaded for the council to adopt more stringent methods of preventing substance abuse by teenagers. She reiterated Underwood's point that teenagers often make bad decisions due to immature brain development. "We need to do everything we can to make sure kids don't make decisions they can't take back," Monica said.

North Kingstown High School Principal, Gerald Foley, who facilitated the program, agreed with Monica's assessment, "Enough is enough," Foley said. "We have to do more to protect our kids." He pointed out that in the years he has been with the school department there have been 14 tragic and unnecessary student deaths. One of those deaths occurred over this past holiday weekend, he said, though he declined to mention any specific names or circumstances.

The school committee's response to the presentations was overall quite positive although some concerns were raised regarding both the "In the presence of," clause and the cyber image changes.

Committee Member Doug Roth raised concerns regarding innocent kids getting swept up due to the "In the presence of," clause. Both Underwood and members of the public responded that they felt that this would be a highly unlikely event.

Committee Members Mel- void Benson and Linda Avanzato expressed a desire to somehow include all students, even those who are not directly involved in athletics or other activities. But, although everyone agreed that this was an admirable goal, questions as to how to go about doing so without the ability to impose similar sanctions, remain unanswered.

Public input was nearly 100 percent in support of the policy changes.

Jen Lima, a North Kingstown parent and mother of a former high school athlete, asked the school committee to adopt the policy changes. "As a mother of a former high school athlete who struggled with issues of addiction, I am asking that you adopt these policy changes," Lima said, emphasizing that her son was given many exceptions due to his athletic talents and implying that these exceptions were not helpful to him in his struggle.

Jamestown parent and volunteer firefighter Andrea von Hohenleiten, also pleaded with the council to adopt the changes. "I recently responded to a call for a car accident involving some North Kingstown teenagers who rolled their car after drinking and I never want any other kids to have an experience like that again," von Hohenleiten said. She emphasized the role that parents can take in preventing substance abuse by being vigilant about contacting other parents and ensuring that children are going to be monitored when attending parties. "My own sons would just call and hand me the phone," she said, "there wasn't even any question about it."

Lori Maroney, a school nurse at Davisville Middle School and mother of three boys who went through North Kingstown Schools, pledged to do her best to continue to educate young people regarding the harmful effects of drug and alcohol abuse.

Athletic Director Keith Kenyon also wholeheartedly supported the suggested policy changes. "I think that the suggested changes, if approved, will help in our battle against substance abuse in grades 6 to 12. We want a program that shows concern for our students year round, and not just when they are playing basketball or performing in a drama production. It will hopefully go a long way in helping kids make educated decisions regarding their mental well being and how it affects their performance in athletics and extra curricular activities," Kenyon said.

The North Kingstown Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force, using grant money secured by task force coordinator Laura Hosley, sponsored the presentations.

The school committee will be voting on the policy changes at their next meeting on Tuesday, June 9. Continued public input will be accepted at that time.

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