Student-athletes deal with the pressures of drugs, alcohol
The arrest of Chicago Bears’ wide receiver Sam Hurd on federal drug charges sent the sports world reeling at the end of 2011. Commentators across the U.S. wondered why an athlete who seemingly was living the American dream would risk it all to deal cocaine.
Not to mention that youngsters who look up to professional athletes as role models were being confronted with yet another example of a sports star fallen into disgrace.
At North Kingstown High School, counselor Jessica Volke responded to questions about the impact on student-athletes by acknowledging the fallout that undoubtedly had reached into locker rooms at the local schools.
Volke, a counselor with R.I. Student Assistance Services, said drugs are as big a problem in North Kingstown as in any other U.S. community.
“I can’t really believe North Kingstown is different than any other community,” Volke said. Based on health and wellness surveys, she estimated that 25 to 28 percent of students have experimented with drugs and alcohol.
That’s a concern, she said, but the number also points out the good news, which is the majority are staying away from drugs and alcohol.
“Most kids aren’t using,” she said, even though many people have the opposite impression.
This year, 23 student-athletes are helping break the stereotypes about athletes and drugs. They have joined the local chapter of Varsity Athletes Against Substance Abuse. The varsity athletes are speaking at the middle school to contradict the bad example some pro athletes are setting.
“That’s why we have VAASA,” she said. “There is that stereotype. We are trying to break the stereotype by saying, ‘Hey, there’s athletes that are not using. Hey, I’m an athlete, and I’m not using.’”
Volke said the behavior of star athletes does sway youngsters’ decisions. When an Olympic athlete gets caught smoking pot, she said, the impact on students is “huge.” They figure, “that’s how athletes act,” she said.
Or take a hard look at a network football game, she said, and count the number of beer commercials during the broadcast. That sends another message linking sports with drugs and alcohol.
Volke started the local high school’s chapter of Varsity Athletes Against Substance Abuse when she came to North Kingstown four years ago. VAASA is a national peer leadership program. According to Volke, the local response has been overwhelming, and, in fact, more than 23 students applied, but Volke couldn’t accept any more.
Volke said VAASA student- athletes sign a pledge that they won’t drink or do drugs. At other schools, one or two students have failed to live up to the promise. In her four years at North Kingstown High School, none of the VAASA students has broken the pledge.
The student-athletes give up “advisory,” a free period, to work on their middle school presentations. They meet five or six times with the entire group and then break into smaller units focused on sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade audiences. Finally, they go to the middle school and deliver the message that you don’t need drugs to be an athlete. They also help the younger kids make the transition to high school. For example, last year they put on an ice cream social and made a personal connection with the middle school students.
The connection lasts after the middle school students start high school.
“They remember the VAASA kids coming and talking to them,” she said. “The kids feel supported.”
One Jamestown player this year has joined VAASA. Amina Brown, 15, a North Kingstown junior, led the Skippers’ junior varsity girls’ tennis team to an undefeated season capped by a state championship last fall. She is playing hockey with The Storm this winter. But more islanders might have signed up for VAASA if she could have found a way to expand the enrollment.
“I had more applications than I could accept,” she said. She added that she did stretch the limits by taking 23, and that most VAASA chapters enroll 15 to 20 students.
VAASA’s one way the Skippers are getting the message out. North Kingstown High takes a strong stand against drugs and alcohol, according to Dr. Thomas W. Kenworthy, the principal. He said the North Kingstown School Committee several years ago adopted a substance abuse policy and put teeth in it, so students understand the consequences of breaking the rules.
“We do follow through with consequences,” he said, and acknowledged some students have been caught using drugs and alcohol.
“Instances pop up,” he said. “It’s difficult dealing with high school students in this day and age.” The chemical health policy is not targeted at student-athletes – it applies to all students and the penalties for students who break the rules while participating in extracurricular activities also cover youngsters participating in drama club or any other activity.
But the athletics department goes the extra mile and requires all student-athletes and their parents to attend a presentation at the start of every season. And the studentathletes also review the policy during the season.
According to Joanne Fitts, coordinator of school health partnerships, the focus on athletes is correct, based on statistics. They’re more likely to abuse substances, she said, because substance abuse is a “socialization process,” and athletes are already immersed in a socialization process when they play a team sport. “They’re more vulnerable,” said Fits.
Fitts said athletes and students who participate in extracurricular activities also face extra penalties if they violate the chemical health policy. The penalties are based on the number of offenses. For a first offense, typically, the student is suspended for two games (or two events). A second infraction brings a 90-day suspension.
“They’re expected to be leaders in school,” Fitts said, “but they also have something to lose.”
Fitts said the North Kingstown School Committee adopted the policy in 2002 and then revised it in 2009. “The policy’s working,” she said. “We’re working this year on getting it out there and publicized it a little more.”