Educators see suspensions drop after altering treatment options for drug, alcohol offenders

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By Tracy Harris

After a major spike in drug-and alcohol-related suspensions three years ago, Oldham County school officials developed a plan to reduce those numbers — and it’s working.

Projections for this school year estimate the number of student suspensions will be half what they were in the 2008-09 school year, the year before the plan’s implementation. This school year there have been 23 suspensions, compared to 53 at the same time last year.

“We’re trying to keep kids alive,” said Dan Orman, assistant superintendent for student services.

Orman said several incidents made officials increasingly worried a student might die without more intervention. 

In late 2010, three students at Oldham County High School consumed rubbing alcohol mixed with a sports drink. EMS crews shuttled the students to Louisville hospitals, as rubbing alcohol consumption can be fatal.

In 2009, Superintendent Paul Upchurch and the board of education developed the current approach for dealing with students found possessing, using or trafficking drugs and alcohol.

Before the new policy, the district typically gave a suspension followed by an assignment to Buckner Alternative High School. But BAHS Principal Jonathan Wosoba said the length of time a student spent at BAHS didn’t necessarily correspond to how much help the student needed.

“It was kind of guessing game,” he said. 

Now, a more involved process involves both students and their parents. 

Students take are screened for potential mental heath issues — substance abuse is considered a mental health issue.

Students and parents then meet with Orman and go over a reentry schedule specific to the student, based on assessment results.

Wosoba said students with low-levels of involvement, such as first-time offenders, may be assigned to shorter terms at BAHS coupled with educational programming and possibly attending support group meetings.

Those with higher levels of involvement may be recommended to a variety of outpatient rehab programs.

“Every kid has a different schedule and a different approach,” Orman said.

Students facing their first offense are assigned to the transition program at BAHS, where they receive work from their regular teacher.

“It’s very sterile,” Wosoba said, and students are supervised the entire time. But, Wosoba said the students typically get a lot of assignments completed.

Being caught up on their work is “one worry they can take off their plate,” Wosoba said.

The policy also ties the school and legal aspects of a drug or alcohol suspension together.

Previously, a student could wait months for any criminal charges to be resolved, since a judge would often ask for an assessment at the first court appearance, then schedule a second appearance at a later date. 

“The time frame was way too loosey-goosey,” Wosoba said. By integrating the assessment portion earlier, the judge’s decision comes earlier and streamlines reentry and treatment for the student.

Orman gives credit to the judicial system, county attorney and police departments for their involvement, since both sides communicate to determine a student’s needs. 

The policy seems to be effective. Suspensions for drug and alcohol offenses peaked at 102 in the 2008-09 school year but have fallen every year since, down to 76 last school year. 

The number of students with multiple offenses has fallen significantly, down from 26 in 2008-08 to only three so far this year.

Orman said the education and treatment students receive gives them a reason to say no in the future.

While Wosoba knows most students don’t want to ever return to his school’s more rigid environment, he’s optimistic the treatment programs are helping with underlying problems.

Students with depression, social anxiety, attention deficit disorder and other mental health issues may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope, Wosoba said, but hopefully the therapy makes a difference. 

“We’re seeing great things,” Wosoba said.


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