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School officials laud drug policy

Some parents doubt survey, urge changes

By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2012
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The one-year results have school officials in Swampscott excited about the district’s headline-making chemical health policy.

“We’re optimistic that the data are moving in the right direction,’’ said Superintendent Lynne Celli. High school principal Layne Millington “and his team did a wonderful job concentrating on the opportunity for dialogue, the opportunity for education, the opportunity for kids to reflect on making good decisions.’’

Swampscott schools drew national attention last year when the high school adopted a tough and thorough new policy regarding underage drinking and drug use, including tobacco. Starting with a mandatory meeting with parents in January, the new policy provided across-the-board consequences for those involved in drinking, drug use, or possession or distribution, and required students who violate the policy to meet with a school psychologist or counselor for what is termed a “choices conference.’’

The new policy - there are actually two very similar policies, for athletes and others - governed not just athletes, who are already overseen by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, which issues suspensions for athletes involved in in-season incidents. The policy is also for students involved in other extracurricular activities. It is extended beyond the athletic seasons, in effect covering all students for 365 days a year.

The policies can be found on the school district website:

Millington delivered the first-year results, compiled from student surveys and incident reports, to the School Committee at an April 11 meeting.

Among the findings:

■The percentage of students who reported driving a car while under the influence of alcohol in the previous 30 days decreased from 12.5 percent before the policy’s implementation to 9.1 percent.

■The percentage of students who reported not having had alcohol in the previous 30 days increased from 46 percent in 2011 to 52.5 percent in 2012.

■The percentage of students who reported binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row) in the previous 30 days decreased to 30.8 percent from 37.7 percent.

■The percentage of students who reported using marijuana in the previous 30 days decreased from 31.4 percent to 26.6 percent.

■There were also decreases in the percentage of students who reported using some type of cocaine (4.1 percent to 3.7 percent), sniffing or huffing (9.3 percent to 6 percent), using heroin (4.1 percent to 2.9 percent), using speed or amphetamines (5.9 percent to 2.9 percent), ecstasy (6.5 to 5.8 percent), or steroids (4.2 percent to 3.6 percent).

■The number of drug or alcohol incidents declined from an average of 1.7 per month - and 10.7 students per month - in the three months leading up to the policy being adopted in October 2010, to .59 incidents per month and 2.4 students per month in the 17 months since then.

While the program was adopted in October 2010, the implementation, including a parents’ meeting, took place in January 2011, along with the publicity. The prepolicy statistics do not include those involved in an incident involving members of the cross-country team, because they change the statistics by such a large margin.

“We were very pleased that we’re seeing incremental improvements,’’ said School Committee chairwoman Jackie Kinney. “They’re steps to the positive in terms of improvement in kids’ behavior, so we’re very pleased with the results.’’

Three years ago, Kinney was the School Committee’s representative to the Swampscott Drug, Alcohol & Youth Behavior Task Force.

“There was always a lot of concern about what happened in the summer, in particular,’’ she recalled, adding that incidents involving drinking or drug use seemed to increase in the summer and in the first weeks of the school year. In summer 2011, there were no such incidents, she said.

“We tried to see what we could do to raise the stakes,’’ said Kinney, who credited Millington with putting the program into place.

The findings did not placate critics of the program, who did not attend the meeting (one said that some parents planned to attend, but ran into scheduling issues).

A group called the Repeal and Rethink Committee has objected to the policy, which they feel is intrusive and interferes with parental responsibilities. They have been trying to meet with the School Committee to urge members to reconsider the policy, but that meeting has not yet occurred, said parent Judith Bevis, a therapist.

Bevis said that a problem with the recent report is that the prepolicy survey includes exaggerations by student respondents.

“Our children, who were part of that initial survey, told us they made it up,’’ Bevis said. “We started with an initial, enormous exaggeration.’’

“I don’t know how much stake we’re going to put on a downward trend when we felt that the numbers used as a starting point were an exaggeration,’’ said another parent, Heidi McCoy.

Although the surveys were anonymous and Millington said that the variables of over- and underreporting were factored into the survey, Bevis suggested that some students may have underreported substance use for fear of further consequences.

“The real issue here is that we want our kids to not use drugs and alcohol, and we want an intervention put in place that really makes a difference in kids’ lives that are respectful to the community,’’ Bevis said. “That’s what we didn’t have a responsiveness to, and instead they do this stupid study that nobody believes anyway, and now they’re all patting themselves on the back.’’

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