Mashpee Schools Navigating Complex Role in Preventing Substance Abuse
By: Elsa H. Partan
As opiate drug abuse has skyrocketed over the last five years on Cape Cod and alcohol abuse among teenagers remains a concern, the role of schools in combating substance abuse has become more complicated.
Mashpee’s school system, like those in many Cape Cod towns, is grappling with how to keep children from using drugs and alcohol in the absence of a single, nationally recognized prevention program.
This year Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw has spearheaded a broad new approach to youth wellness called Mashpee Cares. She aims to build a coalition of school administrators, parents, human service providers, and others who will foster a town culture that discourages underage drinking, drug abuse, and violence and supports good coping skills, she explained in a recent interview.
The coalition is forming at a time when some parents of high school students are turning a blind eye to teen drinking parties in their own houses, according to one Mashpee mother. A 2007 statewide survey found that 73 percent of high school students reported that they had at some point in their lives consumed alcohol. Over the course of seven years, opiate addiction has taken up a much greater proportion of the problems treated by Gosnold of Cape Cod, a treatment center in Falmouth. In 2002, 24 percent of Gosnold’s patients were addicted to opiates. In 2009, that figure jumped to 45 percent.
That the Mashpee Cares group has no tidy formula for success or ready-made education program reflects the current research on drug abuse. In fact, Mashpee’s approach appears to be state of the art. One-size-fits-all drug education courses from the 1980s have given way to a much subtler tack that demands buy-in from the whole community, from liquor store owners to high school sports coaches.
Mashpee Cares echoes programs that Falmouth and Sandwich started in 2008 and is similar to plans that Barnstable announced last month.
The lack of a simple, school-based education regime stems, in part, from the demise of Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E. Developed in Los Angeles in 1983, the 17-week program for elementary and middle school students spread quickly across the country. Mashpee, like many towns, assigned a police officer to teach students how to resist peer pressure and about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
“There was just one little problem—it was ineffective,” said David L. Rosenbloom, the director of Join Together, a program of Boston University School of Public Health.
After 10 years, D.A.R.E. began to fall out of favor as studies indicated that it did not work, he said. Critics of D.A.R.E. said the program taught that all drugs and their consequences are the same, which does not square with the reality that children see in their communities. The successful parts of D.A.R.E. should have started later than grade 5 and should have repeated again in the upper grades, Mr. Rosenbloom suggested.
“Our view is that effective alcohol and drug prevention starts with parents and involves the community, public policy, and the environment in which the children live,” Mr. Rosenbloom said. “Schools can play a role, but cannot be relied on to substitute for other broader family and community forces.”
Mashpee’s D.A.R.E. program started around 1990 and came under scrutiny in 2004, according to Police Chief Rodney C. Collins. Funding for the “school resource officer” was cut about two years ago, he said.
Since D.A.R.E. fell out of favor, a messier, more diffuse concept called Communities that Care has been embraced by researchers nationwide and by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mr. Rosenbloom said.
Federal Drug-Free Community grants have been given to 741 towns and cities across the country to support the programs, including a five-year, $625,000 award to Falmouth for its Prevention Partnership, begun in 2008. So far, that group has embarked on a campaign to put stickers in liquor stores asking customers not to purchase alcohol for minors, created a pledge for parents that they will not allow teen drinking or drug use in their homes, and formed an ongoing five-week training course for parents on how to guide their children’s behavior in many areas, including drug and alcohol abuse. The partners in the coalition range from religious congregations to the chamber of commerce.
As Mashpee Cares takes its first steps in Falmouth's direction, the town's existing drug education is primarily done in health classes at the high school. The curriculum, called Project Alert, is presented in a three-week course of 11 sessions to all 9th graders, according to Aphrodite T. Purdy, a health and physical education teacher at the high school. The classes include a discussion of the effect of alcohol and drugs on the body, the costs of drug addiction, and strategies for overcoming life setbacks. Next year, the curriculum will also be presented in 7th and 8th grade, Ms. Purdy said.
The concepts, which adhere to the Massachusetts Department of Education's curriculum framework, are not dramatically different from those delivered by D.A.R.E., but they are meant to fit into a broader strategy. Part of the approach is to get every student to join a club, sport, theatrical or musical group, Ms. Bradshaw said.
“We have to get every kid involved in something so they don’t have to look for it outside of school,” she said. “You have to get at the root cause of why people turn to drugs rather than being involved in positive things.”
Mashpee teaches coping skills for dealing with stress and negative feelings starting in elementary school with a curriculum called Second Step. The skills are a foundation for the kind of citizenship the school wants to promote until graduation, Ms. Bradshaw said.
There are also deterrents. For example, Mashpee’s school nurse is called to do an assessment if a teacher suspects a student is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The Barnstable County Sheriff’s office shows up unannounced with a drug-sniffing dog a few times a year and checks everyone’s backpacks and lockers. When it comes time for the prom, every student who wants to enter must take a breathalyzer test.
That intervention was prompted by a series of teen drinking incidents dating back to at least 2003, when the school system imposed harsher penalties on student athletes for using alcohol. Last April, Mashpee police broke up a party of 50 to 60 teens at a sand pit off Great Hay Road and found evidence of drinking there. They also responded to a handful of house parties last year where teens were drinking.
Changing Mashpee’s culture around underage drinking will not be easy, according to Tamara J. Gray, the mother of 17- and 19-year-old sons living at home in Mashpee. Ms. Gray, whose 17-year-old is still at Mashpee High School, said that teens are drinking at someone’s house in Mashpee nearly every weekend.
“And the parents say, ‘They’re down in the basement, they are all here for the night,’ and they don’t interfere with what is going on,” she said.
Ms. Gray empathizes with parents who believe they can keep their teens safe and still allow them to drink, but she disagrees. Over the last six years, she has been one of the chief fundraisers for the alcohol- and drug-free post prom party, a $10,000 affair that boasts a laptop computer give-away, padded sumo wrestling suits, and a race of toilet bowls on wheels, among other things.
About 100 students came to the party last time, which Ms. Gray found disappointing, considering that about 240 juniors and seniors are eligible to come, plus any dates they invite from outside of Mashpee. She would like to see at least another 50 students take part. “You’ve got a group of parents who are willing to throw you the party of your life, and you want to go sit on the ground somewhere and drink?” she said.
Raymond V. Tamasi, president and CEO of Gosnold on Cape Cod, said that making strides against drug and alcohol abuse will mean changing the culture of a school.
“It means challenging casual conversations about getting smashed on Thursday night,” he said. “It means smoking weed becomes socially unacceptable, or popping pills out of your parents’ cabinet is not cool.”
One of the first steps of Mashpee Cares will be to survey students to understand the prevalence of substance abuse and the children’s attitudes about it. Derek Thompson, the assistant principal of Quashnet School and a member of Mashpee Cares, said that the group is deciding between two widely-used surveys that can be done again in the future.
“It’s about constantly assessing where we are at and looking at that over time,” he said. “You might see some things getting better and other things becoming an issue.”
Assessment will stop Mashpee from blindly pushing ahead with a strategy that no longer works, he said.
“We want to create a road map and one that will constantly change,” Mr. Thompson said.
Ms. Bradshaw said that, despite the problems of drug and alcohol abuse in the wider community, the school has already created a strong positive culture.
“The idea of respect and service to others has been instilled in them since kindergarten and that helps to hold our kids safer than they would be otherwise,” she said. “We have to do what we can in our corner of the world.”
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