School program battles addictions, community denial HOWARD COUNTY EDUCATION

March 22, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Life is looking up for 18-year-old Dean Koldewey, but it hasn't always.

He started drinking alcohol at 11 and smoking pot at 13. In middle school, he experimented with PCP one day and set gym lockers on fire, getting expelled.

He eventually dropped out of Mount Hebron High School at 16 to drink and smoke dope with friends. In December, he got caught by the police.

Now, two months into his recovery, he's attending classes to earn his GED and holding a steady job -- and proud of it.

"I see a big improvement in myself," he said. "I think my mom would agree with me that drugs and alcohol are not parts of my life today. She would agree I can control myself today."

The idea of a drug or alcohol problem among youths in Howard County is foreign -- even preposterous -- to many parents here.

"What we've had to confront is community denial," said Donald Garrett, an addictions counselor for the county health department. "No one recognizes there's a problem, because if there's a problem, there's a lot of work. It's so convenient to say there is not a problem."

But there is. The county health department and the school system's Student Assistance Program (SAP), a drug intervention and prevention program, will expand into the middle schools next year to work with students before they abuse drugs or alcohol -- before they get into trouble. The program is currently in all eight county high schools and the Gateway School.

"If we don't catch students with substance abuse problems in the school system, we'll be seeing them in the criminal justice system," said Linda Fauntleroy, another county addictions counselor.

The county's addictions center admitted close to 300 students under age 17 last year for alcohol abuse, more than 50 for cocaine addiction, and more than 200 for marijuana, heroin and PCP use. Over a three-year period, the addictions center has seen more than 2,500 teen-agers who have drug or alcohol problems -- about 15 percent of the county's middle and high school student population.

"Of course, not all students are using drugs or alcohol," Mrs. Fauntleroy said. "But the number of students who are is much larger than what we're seeing. I don't think we see all the students who have problems."

What's alarming is that students who are being admitted are experimenting at an earlier age -- and with more drugs, she said.

"They're becoming involved at younger ages -- as young as 7 or 8 years old," she said. "And it's rare to get a kid just using alcohol. It's very rare."

The SAP, piloted at Mount Hebron in 1990, is based on identifying behavior -- whether a student has skipped classes, gotten lower grades, changed clothing habits or changed friends, all trends that may indicate a substance abuse problem.

"Any change in behavior is alarming and is a sign," said Mr. Garrett.

Anyone -- teachers, even other students -- can place a name of an at-risk student with an SAP team, composed of teachers, guidance counselors, a school nurse and an administrator at each school.

The team, along with either Mrs. Fauntleroy or Mr. Garrett, moves into action to gather information from teachers and parents about the student to determine whether that student has a drug or alcohol problem.

If there is a problem, the team sets up a conference and refers the student to various support programs, including the county health department.

Identifying and helping students who may have substance abuse problems "was not done in a consistent manner before" SAP, said Donald McBrien, the school system's pupil services director. "What the SAP Program has done was create a methodology -- not to look at students using drugs or alcohol, but to look at their behavior, which could be associated with drugs and alcohol. There's a far more straightforward approach."

Some teachers in the past were reluctant to report students they suspected of having a substance abuse problem because they were afraid of being sued. But with the SAP, much of that fear has decreased, Mr. Garrett said. An encouraging sign is that more names are being forwarded, and more students with problems are getting help, he said.

At Atholton High School, the SAP "has been quite effective," said school nurse Verna Hirschmann, crediting the support of Principal Scott Pfeifer and Vice Principal David Buchoff. "We've helped several students. As a nurse coming from an elementary school, I was surprised there were students who needed help.

"Sometimes, parents don't want to believe this is happening to their student," she said.

"Other times, parents suspect something, and follow through on the program."

The important thing is to catch students before it's too late, said John Ahlbrand, an 18-year-old Hammond High School dropout and a drug abuser who is six months into recovery.

"There's nothing you can say to anybody who's already using," he said. "They're not going to hear. But if you get them before, there's still a good chance."

Clinic admissions, 1990 to 1992

.. .. .. .. .. .Under 14.. ..14 to 17...18 to 21...22 to 25

Alcohol.. .. .. ..299.. .. .. ..528.. .. .214.. .. ..81

Cocaine/crack.. ...20.. .. .. ..116.. .. ..84.. .. ..14

Hallucinogens.. ...14.. .. .. ...66.. .. ..20.. .. ...0

Heroin.. .. .. .. ..5.. .. .. .. .8.. .. ...4.. .. .. 1

Marijuana.. .. .. 188.. .. .. ..349.. .. ..66.. .. ...6

PCP.. .. .. .. .. .17.. .. .. ...88.. .. ..23.. .. ...2

So: Howard County Health Department

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