Public school program forces suspended students to confront drug issues

Student breaks the rules. Student gets suspended from school. Student effectively gets free vacation.

Student breaks the rules. Student gets suspended from school. Student effectively gets free vacation.

It may not be an ideal situation, but for the offending student the punishment may not be so bad. Even if it comes from some behaviour one has to answer for, it would be hard to find any teenager not excited about three to five days without any classes or requirements.

That was the outcome for transgressing students with the Red Deer Public School District up until early this school year.

But a new program is keeping pupils suspended because of drug issues working on their school work and considering the choices that put them in the predicament.

George MacLeod wags a finger in my face and sternly says “Don’t do drugs!” He is demonstrating not his approach to getting students on the straight and narrow, but exactly the type of overture he says has failed with kids.

“My own view is that the scare tactics haven’t worked with kids. Kids turn off,” said MacLeod, a drug education specialist with McMan Youth, Family and Community Services Association.

A transplanted Scot, MacLeod spent a decade working with youth on the hardscrabble streets of downtown Vancouver before coming to Central Alberta in 2003 to work with youth here. He works out of an office at Red Deer Public’s Alternative School Centre, and this year he has been contracted by the division to guide high schoolers through an Alternatives to Out-of-School Suspensions initiative.

The students who end up with MacLeod typically have shown up to school smelling of marijuana, or are found with drug paraphernalia on them. They are suspended from either Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School or Hunting Hills High School for a week, during which they have to pass their afternoons at the alternative centre.

Students spend two hours a day working through school work sent by their teachers, plus another hour with MacLeod. In his one-on-one time with the youth, MacLeod works through a formal program broken into four parts — one hour to talk about what is going on in the student’s life, the next two to talk about what benefits are derived from drug use and to consider the harm, and the final session sees the student set out a plan for what choices they want to be making going forward.

“The fact is that kids live in a world full of drugs,” says MacLeod, “Some kids make a choice to smoke something or use something, and that’s their choice. What we do here is trying to help the kid reflect on the decisions they’ve made and help them see it in the context of their life. We won’t see them as a bad kid; we see them as a young person who made a choice.

“This program respects kids that they’ve got the power to make decisions. But they also need information to make these decisions and that’s why they look at the benefits and the harm. That’s a healthy decision-making model — whenever we make a decision, what’s good about it, what’s not so good about it?”

While alternative school principal Chad Erickson is careful to note that the division is not condoning teenage drug use, MacLeod stresses that it is not his job to make students quit, but simply to make them think. Students may use pot to deal with anger or stress or to fit in; MacLeod wants to give them other avenues to handle such problems.

When the students do return to their high schools after the week away, there is follow-up with counsellors and administrators, and the commitments and goals the students identified with MacLeod are shared with school personnel. He does not, however, disclose whatever else the students shared with him, and he lets the youth know he can be a confidential sounding board even after the program.

“I find that when you truly listen to kids and give them an avenue where they feel heard and respected, that makes a difference,” he says.

In the last decade, the number of discipline cases involving drug use has increased dramatically within the school division. Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission counsellors have worked in the two high schools, and in 2008 the division got provincial money to implement an intervention program for students with identified addictions.

But students found with a joint or bloodshot eyes would simply be sent home with school work to do before this year. Homework compliance was effectively “nil” and when the students returned, teachers had to play catch up with them. Putting them in the alternative school where they are supported and supervised lessens how far they fall behind.

“When we have the opportunity to still keep them engaged in their learning a bit as well as trying to address some of the reasons why they’re using drugs, to me that’s a win all the way around. It’s been excellent for us,” says Lindsay Thurber principal Dan Lower, whose students have made up the majority of the 30 who have gone through the program.

With drug use becoming more accepted socially and kids more aware of what is out there, Lower said there are indications that more youth in his school are using.

“So if we’re going to find more and more kids under the influence, it just makes sense that we’re not just turfing them out of school.”

The division is measuring the program as a success thus far on the basis of zero cases of recidivism, no expulsions, and the fact that three students have made the permanent switch to the alternative centre after going through the program.

But the players involved acknowledge that immediate 180-degree lifestyle shifts are unlikely and the initiative’s efficacy will be determined over a longer term as the kids age.

Deputy superintendent Stu Henry said the division intends to continue the program next year, and could expand it to cover suspensions relating to transgressions such as fighting or defiance in the future.

Last year, schools within the division issued 247 out-of-school suspensions lasting for three or more days.

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