An ‘archaic policy’ that needs changing

Educators claim we want to increase our graduation rates, but our policy has the effect of progressively rejecting the troubled students.

I believe I must clarify my position regarding School District 33’s Policy 500 on Alcohol and Drugs. After spending a lifetime working with addicted youth, both professionally and personally, I think my opinion should have some relevance. The point I was emphasizing was that we educators claim we want to increase our Graduation Rates, but at the first sign of trouble, our policy has the effect of progressively rejecting the troubled students. When I was first on the board of education, every trustee would get a list of the students who had dropped out of school that month, and we would attempt to contact them to find out the reasons and encourage them to return. In every case, the dropouts explained they were feeling disconnected and unwelcome, and several admitted this was because of their use of illicit drugs. Some of these young people returned much later to complete their graduation requirements, but most didn’t.  I have been to the funerals of too many twenty-something young people who had been caught in the vicious cycle of drug abuse which began when they were in middle and secondary school.

Ten years ago a youthful trustee, Alex McAulay and I attempted to rid the School District of its’ archaic “Zero Tolerance” policy on drugs. The accepted “best practices” in treating addictions today and provincial government policy are a more supportive approach called harm reduction. Alas, our efforts fell on deaf ears.

Advocates of the current SD33 policy 500 argue that they are not “kicking kids out.” They are enforcing rules while at the same time, allowing the student to get an education: they just have to attend a different school. And they are referred to appropriate professionals. I say that if a young person’s drug or alcohol problem has become so severe that it is apparent in school, there are serious problems in their lives that need to be addressed: and these are best addressed in the context of that student’s historical support group: their friends who they have been with since kindergarten. Due to my father’s transfer, I had to  change high schools for grade 11 and I know how traumatic that can be. Our high schools run on different schedules and semester cycles. A student cannot simply switch from one school to another and keep taking the same courses. All too often, the switch from one school to another before the end of the year means failing that whole grade. Plus they are “social pariahs”: all the staff and students in the new school know they are “bad kids” “the stoners” and so they are shunned. Meanwhile, they are referred to professional alcohol and drug counselors so they can be “fixed.”  Anyone working with an addicted youth knows that the whole family system and social support network needs to change: the dependents AND the co-dependents. How can a professional counselor, trained in harm reduction work collaboratively with a school bureaucracy that insists the student must be totally abstinent to have the right to an education? We are so out of step!

What about the national Liberal leader and the mayor of Toronto? Young people get disillusioned and bitter when they see the hypocrisy in our society.

If we sincerely want to improve our graduation rates and prepare our students to enter society as contributing, law abiding citizens, then we need to spend more time with and provide more resources for those students who are struggling. Some of them may have prickly, unlikable personalities: It takes time and effort to connect with them. Rejecting them by forcing them to change schools maybe more efficient, but it is less humane and frankly it doesn’t work.

Most people know of my passion for restorative practices. Punishment rarely changes behavior and there are more enlightened consequences. Most importantly, drug abusing teenagers need to understand how their sickness harms everyone around them.

For those who still think I am out to lunch, before they start making policy affecting addicted youth, they should read David Sheff’s recent book “Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy” (available on Amazon)  After struggling with various bureaucracies who didn’t help his addicted son, Mr. Sheff finally had the experience that every parent dreads: the death of his own child. Based on the latest research in psychology, neuroscience and medicine, David Sheff has written a book that is a leap beyond the traditional approaches to prevention and treatment of addiction and the mental illnesses that accompany it.

Needless to say, I would like to know what position our by election candidates for the board of education have on this issue. I am not exaggerating when I say: it is a matter of life and death.

Barry Neufeld, M.A.

Trustee, Chilliwack Board of Education

Chilliwack School District