Group aims to prevent student substance abuse Carroll schools offer assistance to at-risk youth

November 08, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Social studies teacher Ralph Chiaramonte has served on his share of committees in his 18 years at Liberty High School.

Some have been worthwhile, others have been forgettable. But there's one committee that Chiaramonte has stuck with for 11 years -- the Eldersburg school's Student Assistance Team.

Each Thursday, the group -- which generally includes a guidance counselor, administrator, pupil personnel worker, nurse and addictions counselor -- meets before school to discuss how to help students who have been identified as being at risk for substance abuse problems.

Team members are trained to evaluate changes in students' behavior, notify parents and make referrals to follow-up services, if necessary.

'See the light'

"When we succeed, we win the battle; I don't know if we're ever going to win the war, but the right thing is to be able to get the kids to see the light," said Chiaramonte, who was honored this year by the Maryland Student Assistance Program Professionals Association as its Student Assistance Professional of the Year.

Chiaramonte is the only original member of Liberty's Student Assistance Team still in the group.

"I've yet to get burned out on it," he said.

The Carroll school system began its Student Assistance Teams in 1987.

Joanne Hayes, substance abuse prevention coordinator for county schools, coordinates training for team members with help from Junction Inc., the county's outpatient drug-treatment center for adolescents.

There are 85 school staff volunteers serving on 11 Student Assistance Teams at county high and middle schools. The teams generally meet weekly, before or after school, or during teachers' planning time.

"Working on the teams is way beyond the expectations of employees in Carroll County schools," said Hayes.

"No one got involved or interested in education as a career because they wanted to deal with calling parents and confronting students over an issue as difficult as substance abuse. It really is difficult and stressful work," she said.

Hayes said students referred to the Student Assistance Teams for evaluations defy stereotypes.

"When the teams initially started, people thought they knew who those students [were] who would wind up with the teams," she said. "But we found out it's a cross-section of our entire population."

"An academically gifted student can be lulled into thinking they can handle substance abuse," Hayes said.

"The band folks, the drama people, students who are very career-oriented can still fall into problems."

Student referrals to the Student Assistance Teams are generally made by teachers or other school staff. Typically, Hayes said, they notice changes in a student's behavior -- appearance or academic performance -- that could be indicators of substance abuse.

The team reviews each referral and decides whether the student might have a drug or alcohol problem. If the team concludes it is a possibility, the student's teachers are alerted and asked to complete a form noting any unusual behaviors.

The team reviews the information and determines whether a substance abuse problem is probable. If so, the team asks the student's parents to come to school for a meeting.

Last year, 255 students were referred to the Student Assistance Teams, and the teams made 175 parent contacts. In cases where parents were not notified, the team found the family was aware of the problem or it had insufficient information to call the parents.

Susan Christenbury, a science teacher at South Carroll High and co-chairwoman of the school's Student Assistance Team, emphasized that the goal is to identify potential problems.

"As a team, we don't diagnose anybody," Christenbury said. "We're just looking at indicators. We try to encourage parents to take the next step, which is an assessment by addictions counselors."

All reviews done by the Student Assistance Teams are confidential, and no action taken by the team is included in a student's official record, Christenbury said.

A 'variety' of causes

Sometimes, the team finds that a student's problem is not drug- or alcohol-related.

"Some years ago, we had a student referred to us, and we discovered that she was pregnant," Hayes said. "There are a variety of things that can cause a student to be less than successful in school."

Lack of sleep, watching too much television and not eating properly all can affect a student's performance.

"Sometimes the kid is working too much or it's related to a family situation," Chiaramonte said.

When it comes to notifying parents, Chiaramonte said, the family is always grateful for the help.

"I've never had a parent turn it back on me or say, 'How dare you insinuate or assume,' " he said. "You don't accuse anybody of anything. You just present the information: 'Something's not right here. What could it be?' "

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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