School Board Calls For Internal Substance Abuse Assessment

Newtown Bee By Larissa Lytwyn

In light of recent efforts in the community to address Newtown’s substance abuse issues, Board of Education Chair Elaine McClure introduced a proposal for an “internal substance abuse assessment” at Newtown High School during the board’s March 2 meeting.

While schools obviously cannot be responsible for students outside of school, Ms McClure said, it was important to keep the schools themselves “clean” during the day.

“Parent Connection [a grassroots organization dedicated to keeping youth drug-free through parent-to-parent communication] has been very effective in drawing people in,” said Ms McClure. In addition to referring families to counseling and education resources, Parent Connection hosts speakers, including substance abuse experts, at monthly, free-of-charge discussion forums.

“One thing that Parent Connection has told me, however,” continued Ms McClure, “is their difficulty in reaching high school parents.”

There are many obstacles that can explain this.

While a lot of parents are deeply involved with their children’s lives when they are young, noted former Hawley PTA president Carlen Gaines, many go back to work when they are older.

In addition, she said, the growing independence of middle and high school-aged students, combined with a larger, less personalized school culture, can translate to older children and parents’ increasingly disparate lives.

Ms Gaines also used to be the head of Newtown High School’s PTA, which disbanded in the late 1990s.

“There was a smaller number of parents involved [at the high school level],” said Ms Gaines, “especially relative to the number of students there were in the school.”

The high school PTA did a variety of activities, she said, including consciousness-raising presentations on topics including AIDS and substance abuse.

She would like to see the return of the high school PTA, or a similar group, in the future. “We need to keep connected,” she said.

Former PTA member Judy Holmes acknowledges the most “dangerous” time for older students is between 2 and 6 pm – before parents return from work.

“I think we should educate students [about substance abuse] when they are young and continue it when they are older,” said Ms Holmes.

Susan Hills, former president of the state’s chapter of the PTA, believes that keeping youth drug-free is important for the entire community.

“It affects everyone,” she said. People involved with drugs could be children of your relatives or friends, she said.

During the March 2 board meeting, Ms McClure said that an internal assessment could examine what is working at educating students and faculty – and what is not.

Superintendent of Schools Evan Pitkoff said that one tool that could be helpful in the internal assessment is a substance abuse survey administered by the town’s Prevention Council two years ago.

The assessment could measure both the high school’s current policies and substance abuse related curriculum, he continued.

Newtown High School Principal Bill Manfredonia is currently in the process of assembling a substance abuse assessment committee comprised of faculty and staff, including school guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

The assessment would determine how effectively staff is currently trained in understanding substance use symptoms as well as ways students can educate themselves and each other.

Dr Pitkoff said that Mr Manfredonia would report back to the school board on the committee’s progress.

Board member David Nanavaty emphasized that while the schools are and should continue to be proactive in addressing the substance abuse problem, parents also need to be responsible.

Board Vice Chair Lisa Schwartz expressed concern that parents may not know the high school’s substance abuse policies as well as they would like to.

“I noticed this during the last Parent Connection forum [on February 26],” she said. Although she knew the policies were published in the student handbooks and available at the district’s website, she wished there was a way that the information could be better publicized.

Newtown High School’s substance abuse policy is available at www.newtown.k12.ct.us/~nhs/admin/pages/shb.htm. For more information, contact Newtown High School at 426-7646 or the Board of Education office at 426-7621.

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