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Drug-prevention program must be replaced

April 24, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

The shutdown of a school-based program designed to prevent substance abuse will force the Washington County school system to look at other ways to deter students at three middle schools from abusing drugs and alcohol.

So says Edward Masood, the school system's supervisor for arts, health, physical education and athletics.

"I'm aware that the program was not funded for next year. At this point, I don't know what the school system is going to do. We'll have to drop back and see what our options are," he said.

Used at E. Russell Hicks, Northern and Western Heights middle schools, the program was called Botvin's Life Skills Training. It was developed by Gilbert D. Botvin, a professor at the Cornell University Medical College.

The company's Web site - lifeskillstraining.com - describes the program as teaching three major components:

n Drug-resistance skills, which help young people recognize and challenge common misconceptions about substance abuse and how to resist peer pressure to drink or do drugs.

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n Personal self-management skills, to help students see how their self-image affects the choices they make and how to consider the consequences of choices before they make them.

n General social skills, to help students overcome shyness, communicate effectively and be assertive enough to refuse requests to participate in drug or alcohol abuse.

The course was funded by a Maryland grant to the Washington County Health Department, a grant that was funneled through the Washington County Community Partnership for Children and Families.

In February, the agency sent the Health Department a letter warning officials that they were on track to underspend their grant for the third straight fiscal year.

The letter said that almost $100,000 of the funds allocated to the program in FY 2003 and FY 2004 were "deobligated." According to Stephanie Stone, WCCP's executive director, deobligation meant that although much of the money had not been sent here by the state, it was lost to the local area.

Although the instructors' positions were full-time, Stone said the program faced much turnover and was not staffed to the level that grant funding provided for.

"They had some turnover. I'm not exactly sure what the issues were," she said.

More recently, she said, grant requirements changed, and the emphasis now is on trying to keep youths out of the juvenile justice system. Because of that, and the fact that the program never really took off, staff didn't make it a priority for FY 2006, she said.

Stone said she knows from personal experience the course worked. Her son took it while attending E. Russell Hicks and brought home a lot of good information, Stone said.

William Christoffel, the Washington County Health Officer, said that because of state-level cuts, his agency can't fund the program from its regular budget.

"We have to cover $400,000 in salary increases and our No. 1 priority is expanding the school nursing program, so there are more people to work with teens at risk of becoming pregnant," he said.

Turnover was a problem with the substance-abuse program because pay topped out at $12 an hour, Christoffel said.

The jobs were also what is called "special pay," he said, which meant that there were no benefits.

The other factor that made it tough, Christoffel said, was the difficulty of getting state permission to modify the terms of the grant.

Masood said something will have to replace the program.

"There is a need for something. We have to have something to deal with the use of alcohol and drug abuse," Masood said.

Now for my two cents: Should the county really entrust the job of persuading students not to abuse drugs or alcohol to $12-an-hour people who are likely to leave when a better job comes along?

Neither Christoffell or Masood feels his agency can take over the program, but the truth is, either department could - if the public made it a priority. It's time for citizens to speak up, for the sake of the next generation.

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