Students in the Dover, N.H., School District (K-12, enr. 4,000) who violate the district’s new drug and alcohol policy are now able to attend free counseling sessions.
Under the old policy, students caught with drugs or alcohol were suspended for at least three days for their first offense and faced an expulsion hearing before the school board on their second offense. First-time offenders under the new policy are suspended for only one day, but they must go before the school board.
They are also required to attend counseling, but school officials ran into a snag when they realized there were no programs that would treat students who lacked health insurance, or whose health insurance did not cover counseling.
The city’s police department recently solved the problem by using a grant to set up a free counseling program at Southeastern New Hampshire Alcohol and Drug Services.
The grant proposal was written by Dover Police Chief William Fenniman and Police Captain Dana Mitchell, who applied for a federal Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant. The one-year, $9,000 grant was given to the city of Dover through the state Department of Youth and Families, and it will pay for about 50 students to go through the program.
Licensed alcohol and drug counselors run the program, and “it consists of 18 hours of both education and group discussion,” said Ray McGarty, Southeastern Services executive director. “Students come for three six-hour blocks over three weekends, and they participate in discussion groups and other activities.”
According to Capt. Mitchell, “There’s an incentive for the police department to head off [drug abuse] at the pass. You can always punish the problem, but we’re trying to solve the problem.”
“The key point is that they take a look at how alcohol and other drugs are impacting their lives, their relationships, and their school performance,” McGarty agreed.
He explained that the program also requires counselors from Southeastern New Hampshire Services to run diagnostics to determine the nature of the child’s relationship with the substance.
“We try to decide if it is an experimental phase, or if there is chemical dependency involved,” McGarty said.
Counselors use an “Adolescence and Substance Abuse Questionnaire.” “It’s a good, thoroughly researched test, scored by computer, and it has a validity scale,” said McGarty. “That means it can tell if a client is telling the truth or not.”
McGarty said that validity is tested by re-phrasing the same question many times. “Those [students] trying to lie will often answer the same question differently each time,” he said. “It’s certainly not 100-percent accurate, but it’s a good indicator.”
School officials and substance abuse counselors also hope to get parents involved.
“Although you can’t mandate that parents get education on these issues, we do encourage parents to come in at the end of the program and talk to the counselor and view the diagnostics,” said McGarty.
School board member Nick Skaltsis said the free program is the “missing link” in the district’s new policy.
Skaltsis said the old policy had a relapse rate of nearly 30 percent, but the new policy is designed to reduce the problem while keeping kids in school.
According to Dover Schools Superintendent Armand LaSelva, the weekend drug counseling is assigned at the discretion of the school board, after a hearing is held for the infraction.
“In a situation where someone is caught with drugs, let’s say with marijuana, they are sent home that day with their parent or guardian. They can return the next day to class, and they have to go to an after-school detention program until they go to their scheduled school board hearing,” he said.
After the hearing, the board could require participation in the weekend program. If that is the case, the student would not be allowed to return to school until he or she has enrolled in the program, said LaSelva.
Both the new and old policies carry harsher penalties for students who bring large quantities of drugs to school with intent to sell. Those students may be expelled, Skaltsis said.
The weekend program is no free ride, either.
“If [students] come and they’re disruptive, at some point we’ll discharge them from the program,” said McGarty. In that case, students would have to enroll again at their own expense.
McGarty said substance abuse among youth has remained a serious problem, while resources to help students have declined.
“Dover schools are no different than any other schools in the country right now,” he said. “The percentage of kids in trouble is very high.”
Dover School District
288 Central Avenue
Dover, NH 03820
phone (603) 742-6400
fax (603) 743-3234
Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant program
phone (877) GO-JAIBG