Hamilton County Schools ramping up drug prevention education following recent scares

AP file photo of students.

Hamilton County Schools leaders are ramping up drug prevention education across the county's schools this fall in response to new trends in teen drug use and two recent incidents that have occurred at Brainerd and Central high schools.

In partnership with the Hamilton County Health Department and the Hamilton County Coalition, the school district is working with health and community leaders to create a curriculum and increase drug prevention education for all high school students in the district.

Neither the district nor the health department were specific about the goals or intended message of the curriculum, but Tim Hensley, spokesman for the district, said the lessons would be presented as in-class workshops and promote "healthy choices' and address the risks of drugs, tobacco and e-cigarettes.

photo Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools Dr. Bryan Johnson talks about the system 21-years after the merger of city and county schools.

"We understand that we have a responsibility to meet [students] where they are," said Superintendent Bryan Johnson. "The social-emotional needs of our students are real and we have to always be thinking about ways to support their needs."

The district hopes every high school student will attend such a workshop before Christmas break. Hensley also confirmed that the urgency for such education is due in part to an incident at Brainerd High on Sept. 26 that resulted in five students being transported to area hospitals after taking an undetermined substance during the school day and an incident at Central High on Oct. 3 in which four students ate drug-laced gelatin candies and were also transported for medical treatment.

Charges were filed against one juvenile that distributed the substance to other students at Brainerd High, according to CPD. The juvenile, whose name has not been released, is charged with four counts of reckless endangerment.

Another student involved in the Central High incident was expelled, according to the school's principal, Finley King.

Calandra Smith, program coordinator at the coalition, said it has partnered with the district for years, and collects data through student surveys about their exposure to drugs, personal drug use and drugs in their homes.

"We have offered presentations throughout all of the schools for years," Smith said. "Sometimes we have someone from the Drug Enforcement Administration come in and talk about what the trends are, the different consequences varying on the substances that are being used and also career opportunities in law enforcement and drug enforcement."

Smith said the organization's focus is educating teens and even adults about the consequences of taking certain substances, what can happen and what to do when it becomes a problem.

Paula Collier, coordinator of the health department's tobacco prevention efforts, echoed Smith, reiterating that from a public health standpoint, their goal is to provide evidence-based, factual information to educate students.

"A lot of times with that age group, they get a lot of information from each other that might not be evidence-based information,," she said. "So we give them information, so kids have a better understanding of what to be careful of, how to keep themselves safe."

Both the district and health officials have acknowledged that the increase of newer substances such as synthetic marijuana or e-cigarettes are topics that have not always been historically covered in drug prevention education.

Smith even pointed out the abuse of prescription medication can be a problem among teens and is something about which they need to be educated.

"Our goal is to make sure they have an understanding of everything that they see," she said.

Hensley added that the school district did not want to have schoolwide assemblies or presentations about these topics, but rather it wants to pull students into smaller groups to allow more dialogue and follow-ups by school counselors and administrators.

"The Hamilton County Department of Education has proudly partnered with the Health Department and Hamilton County Coalition for several years. The goal of our partnership is to empower our youth to make healthy choices resulting in a healthy community," reads a statement from Patricia Russell, director of K-12 school counseling and college and career advisers.

Education about drug use and substance abuse typically falls either into health classes at the middle or high school level or to school counselors.

Previously, after the Brainerd High incident, school leaders said it is often left to the school principal how incidents of drug use are discussed at the school level. Principals might bring in guest speakers, members of law enforcement or hold schoolwide meetings after a public incident, but Hensley said the curriculum will be able to become an annual presentation or part of a regular schedule.

The district has not provided specific information about the number of drug-related incidents that have occurred on school campuses and does not comment on disciplinary actions, including zero tolerance offenses that result in expulsion - which includes use or possession of illegal substances on school grounds - relating to students.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at [email protected] or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.