Schools tackle drug issue on two fronts: Canceling dances, scoring grant

Marijuana appears to be the recreational drug of choice for teens in South Portland.

Data from surveys, as well as experience on the ground, show that marijuana is the of choice for teens in South Portland.

That’s one of the reasons a new coalition, called SoPo Unite: All Ages, All in, applied for and received a Drug Free Communities grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy in recent weeks.

Concerns about substance abuse are also the reason that administrators at South Portland High School have now canceled all but two school-sponsored dances this year.

In its grant application, SoPo Unite said, “In South Portland, youth (controlled substance) use looks different than in other places in that marijuana use is higher than all other substances and electronic vaping appears to be one of the primary ways in which young people are using” both marijuana and nicotine.

The decision to cancel the high school dances is not related to the Drug Free Communities grant received by SoPo Unite, but the concerns for the group and high school administrators is the same – how to limit substance abuse and keep kids safe.

While canceling the dances came as a surprise to many last week, it appears as though school district administrators had been considering the move for awhile.

Following the Sept. 12 Board of Education meeting, Ryan Caron, the principal at South Portland, said, “Substance abuse is at the heart of (canceling the dances),” along with the need to “make sure it’s safe for students.”

He added, “We can’t provide the level of safety and supervision we want to provide. I believe that parents feel as though when their kids are coming to the dance, they’re being supervised by me, (but) a large amount of kids aren’t, they’re leaving,” early.

In making the decision to cancel all school dances but homecoming and the prom, Caron told the school board that he surveyed other high school administrators in surrounding towns so see how they’ve dealt with the issue.

Many of those high schools, or schools of comparable size, “are struggling with some of the things we’re struggling with” and have already cut down to only two dances a year,” he said.

Caron also sought the advice of the city’s police department.

“The No. 1 response back was (to) cancel the dances,” he said. “There’s too much liability to have that type of event in a public setting.”

Although the school board reluctantly agreed to cancel most of the school dances this academic year, Caron did hold out the option last week of restoring the dances if homecoming and the prom go well, with few hitches.

Kara Tierney-Trevor, a social worker at South Portland High and a member of SoPo Unite, said this week that “while youth substance use is an issue in every community, the causes and the solutions are unique. This grant will allow us to directly impact the causes of youth substance here in South Portland.”

With the grant, “we will be able to provide prevention education to youth and families and engage the whole community in an effort to create an environment that supports our young people in making healthy decisions (that) prevent them from using drugs and alcohol.”

SoPo Unite will receive $125,000 per year for five years under the grant approved by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, according to Lt. Frank Clark at the police department.

The SoPo Unite coalition is made up of representatives from various city departments, including the police, parks and recreation, the schools and a city councilor. In addition, parents, students, local business leaders, faith-based groups, the Boys & Girls Club and the Opportunity Alliance are all involved, Clark said.

“Youth substance use is a community problem that requires a community response,” said Tierney-Trevor said. “We all have a role to play in supporting our young people and in creating opportunities for them to be successful members of our community. The SoPo Unite coalition is excited to get the community involved in these efforts so that we all know and feel comfortable with our role in supporting youth and preventing them from using drugs and alcohol.”

Involving the whole community in the effort to teach kids about the negative impact of drug and alcohol use is a key aspect of the SoPo Unite coalition, said Sarah Pearson, a parent of two middle school students who is also a member of the group.

She said one of the goals of SoPo Unite is to help parents and community members understand that the notions that “it won’t happen here” and “this issue is about other kids, mine are good students,” simply do not apply.

Pearson said the information SoPo Unite has received from public health officials about youth substance abuse in the city was “eye opening. I didn’t realize how super easy marijuana is to get or that vaping is an extremely popular activity” among local teens.

Pearson, who has experienced the impact of substance abuse in her extended family, said she does her best to be “pretty wide open” in talkng with her children  about drug and alcohol use, but that many other parents she knows don’t have those types of conversations.

She said the goal for SoPo Unite is not necessarily to be “prohibitionist. The whole (idea) is to get the kids through (adolescence) safely.”

The group is putting “a large emphasis on moving the school district’s substance use policies from punitive consequences toward restorative approaches,” the group said in its grant application materials.

The group has set high goals for its first year, including hiring a full-time director, a restorative justice contractor, who will be charged with the development of new school policy recommendations, and a media contractor, who will help SoPo Unite tailor its outreach efforts “to address cultural and socioeconomic differences” across the city,” the grant application said.

Clark said this week that under the grant, SoPo Unite would work toward providing training “around best practices for prevention,” for school staff, students and parents, as well as others in the community who regularly interact with teens.

The grant will also be used, he said, to support “the police department in their efforts to consistently enforce underage drinking and marijuana use laws” as well as “offering education to the community on what works to prevent young people from using drugs and alcohol.”

“Like with any community, we see the impacts and consequences of drug use,” Clark said. “As community members and leaders, we have the responsibility to work together to curb that use and reduce the impacts to our youth.”

He added, “In a time when we are all tasked with doing more with less, (the grant) funding is critical in allowing us to make every effort to do (this) right and have a true impact.”

Tierney-Trevor, the high school social worker, agreed.

“Substance abuse is an issue in every community, including South Portland. This grant allows us to impact our most vulnerable population, our youth, through direct education and prevention efforts. With (these) grant funds, we will be able to intervene early and often to provide the best prevention education for our youth and families.”

Overall, she said, “We hope to empower South Portland’s young people to make healthy choices regarding (controlled) substances in order to better achieve optimal performance mentally, physically and socially. This goal will be achieved through outreach efforts to all community members, including parents, teachers, coaches, administrators, civic and faith leaders and law enforcement officials.”

Tierney-Trevor added, “Receiving this grant is an incredible opportunity for the entire community. Today it’s likely most people have been impacted by the effects of substance abuse or addiction in their families or with someone they love. The grant will allow us to implement best practices for prevention so we can begin to turn this tide.”

According to Clark, SoPo Unite formed in the spring of 2014 in direct response to an initiative, which failed at the ballot box, to legalize the recreational use of marijuana within the city.

But, it wasn’t until “a high-profile event in which a large group of high school student athletes were caught and suspended for drug possession and distribution did the group realize (there was a) need for a more continuous, coordinated effort to address (controlled) substance use” by youth,” he said.

Sun Media Wire staff writer Alex Acquisto contributed to this report.

Marijuana appears to be the recreational drug of choice for teens in South Portland.