South Whidbey students are in peril, task force says

LANGLEY — Kids are in peril.

Drug and substance abuse, lagging education and too few extracurricular opportunities were mainly blamed at Wednesday’s school board meeting. And parents want the South Whidbey School District to help their children.

That was Tom French’s message to the school board and Superintendent Jo Moccia at the board meeting Wednesday. He has been part of a group that met with current students, recent graduates, parents with students in the school district and parents who have taken their students out of South Whidbey schools, all to discuss students’ drug use on the South End.

“The content of those conversations was alarming as I began to understand the depth and seriousness of the substance abuse problem among young people in our community,” French read from a written statement.

French recalled one of his conversations in which a drug and alcohol counselor said the South Whidbey School District was denying, “the full extent of the problem.”

Moccia rebuffed that comment, however, and said school leaders and she recognized youth substance abuse is an issue on the South End.

Last year, 15 incidents of students caught with drugs or drug paraphernalia were reported.

Most of the cases involved marijuana, though prescription drugs were also confiscated. All of those students were offered substance abuse counseling, Moccia said.

In spring, Moccia and South Whidbey High School Principal John Patton met with Island County law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office to discuss drug use in the schools.

“We’ve done anything but ignore it,” Moccia said. “We were concerned with being able to count on law enforcement on that issue.

“He is right, it is a community issue that involves community concern.”

Drugs in decline

In Island County, reported frequency of alcohol, cigarette and other illegal drug use declined from 2008-2010.

The Healthy Youth Survey, which is administered to sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grade students every two years, showed that in 2010, one in four 10th graders and one in three 12th graders consumed alcohol in the past 30 days of the survey.

A total of 1,939 surveys were collected.

Alcohol remained the drug of choice among students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades.

About 4 percent of Island County 12th graders reported using “other illegal drugs” within the past 30 days; 1 percent used hyperactivity drugs and 6 percent used prescription pain killers.

Nationally, drug use is higher according to a 2011 Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey. The specificity of its survey is greater, too, with cocaine, inhalants like glue or aerosol cans, heroin, methamphetamines, steroids and prescription drugs (the highest at 25.6 percent using it without a doctor’s prescription) each given its own percent, rather than lumped together as “other drug use.”

French insisted that he did not want to blame the school or parents for a perceived increase in substance abuse.

Rather, he wanted to acknowledge there is a problem, then work with the school board and administration to find a solution.

“… One thing that is clear is we need to find a more effective approach to this issue, be willing to face the brutal facts and accept responsibility for doing something more effective,” French said. “In short, our current trajectory is simply not working.”

Better youth engagement

One of the suggestions to curb youth drug use was to better engage students in school and offer more activities.

French highlighted his support of Falcon athletics and the music program, but noted that other students are missing groups or activities, “that hold and capture their interest and passion, which leads to boredom and apathy.”

Despite reading a laundry list of the district’s shortcomings — less programs, less teachers, less students — French was short with a solution.

“I’m not coming to the table with an answer, but I’m coming to the table with an invitation,” French said.

South Whidbey schools have a kindergarten through 12th grade substance abuse prevention curriculum. Teaching students to make healthy, wise decisions, Moccia said, is the main focus. A health course at Langley Middle School is charged with covering drug and alcohol use and its negative health effects.

“It’s not something we’re ignoring,” Moccia said. “It’s not just something we can handle all by ourselves.”

“There’s no one answer to it. Our hope is to prevent students from making those poor choices to begin with.”

Board Chairman Steve Scoles said he was on previous board committees to evaluate student health and drug use, and admitted that drug and alcohol counseling had been reduced. Scoles asked French if there was something different that could be done for students.

“I haven’t seen anything to get excited about in a long time,” French said.

French and the youth task force will meet some time in October, and encouraged the school board, principals and District Superintendent Jo Moccia to attend. Moccia, Scoles and other board members said they planned to join the forum.

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