Schools have been called a microcosm of our society. Or, put another way, the problems which occur in the grown-up world exist in schools.
It’s a reality that Lakes Region educators know all too well.
“Issues (problems) cross all areas of our community, all segments of our society,” Inter-Lakes School District Superintendent Mary Moriarty said of the challenge schools face in trying to keep young people away from drugs and intervening with students who have become substance abusers or have been traumatized by drug use by family member or close friends.
While the publicity surrounding the opioid epidemic in New Hampshire has helped raise awareness about the prevalence of drug abuse, opioids are not the big culprit among young people in the Laconia area.
Jessica Conrad, the licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor at Laconia High and Laconia Middle schools, said most of the students she deals with are either drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana. “We’re gaining on the harder drugs,” Conrad explained, “but marijuana is harder. It’s easier to convince them not to drink alcohol than not to smoke pot.”
Conrad said she’s heard youngsters tell her that not only is marijuana harmless, it can actually help them. Making it even harder to convince young people not to use marijuana is what Laconia Police Officer Eric Adams calls the “mixed message” the state is now sending by the recent law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, although the substance is still considered illegal. Conrad points out that despite the new law, it is still illegal for anyone under 18 to have marijuana.
The presence of addiction counselors like Conrad are an indication of the resources schools are devoting to both preventive and rehabilitative initiatives focusing on substance abuse among students.
But educators are quick to point out that school programs alone are not adequate to address the problem.
“It’s a community issue,” said Moriarty.
Gilford Superintendent Kirk Beitler echoed that view. “This is not something the schools can deal with my themselves,” he said.
To that end, some local organizations are trying to bring the issue to the wider community.
Stand Up Laconia was formed seven years ago as a way for concerned residents to come to grips with the causes and consequences of substance misuse by advocating for prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery. The group is comprised of concerned citizens, members of law enforcement and the business community and students. It also includes residents who have known someone with an addiction.
The group meets the fourth Thursday of the month from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Huot Technical Center.
Clare Persson, who has spearheaded Stand Up Laconia since its inception, said the organization has had a positive impact on how the community has addressed the drug crisis, not only in Laconia, but beyond. There are now Stand Up organizations in the Newfound Area, in Salem, and in the Berlin area.
“Our dream is a Stand Up New Hampshire,” Persson said.
Stand Up Laconia spawned a similar initiative in the Inter-Lakes School District, where Call to Action was launched earlier this year. Like the Laconia prototype, Call to Action aims to reduce youth substance misuse, educate local residents and families and provide a way to connect community members to promote a healthy lifestyle free of substance abuse.
With considerable financial and moral support from the community, Call to Action’s organizers convened a gathering in March attended by police officers, firefighters, other emergency responders, members of the local clergy, parents and other community stakeholders. They discussed not only what steps need to be taken confront substance abuse, but they also identified community assets which provide outlets for healthy youth activities.
“It’s as important to know what’s going right as what’s going wrong,” said Holly Vieten, head guidance counselor at Inter-Lakes High School in Meredith, who stressed that Call to Action is prevention-focused.
Area educators and law enforcement experts agree that prevention education needs to start in the elementary grades.
“Once they are in high school, it’s harder to change them,” said Jessica Hamill, a guidance counselor at Laconia High and the Lakes Region representative to the New Hampshire School Counselors Association. “You need to educate them at a younger age.”
The LEAD — short for Law Enforcement Against Drugs — program which was launched this past spring starts in kindergarten and continues all the way through high school. In addition to drug education, LEAD also includes instruction on bullying and violence.
In Laconia, too, drug awareness begins in the elementary grades. Family surveys among elementary school students help to identify challenges children are facing, “including kids exposed to drugs and alcohol (abuse) in their homes,” said Laconia School Superintendent Dr. Brendan Minnihan.
Youngsters who are using drugs or alcohol themselves are often exposed to substance abuse or other dysfunctional behavior at home and account for a large share of a school counselor’s workload.
“Most of the children we see have had adverse childhood experiences, such as neglect, abuse or divorce,” said Conrad. “Adding drugs is just one more layer.”
Counselors do not just listen to students talk about their problems, they also work with families. “The most important thing (for students) is there is a kind, caring adult in their life,” Minnihan said.
But, said Conrad, that’s what the at-risk students she sees are missing.
“While we’re seeing a decrease in some of the harder drugs (among youth), we’re seeing an increase in the trauma of their parents of others in the household (who are using),” said Adams, who is the drug prevention and treatment coordinator for the Laconia Police Department. “A child should not have to take care of their parents.”
That kind of stress and anxiety makes it harder for a child to be a good student. A youngster who comes to school carrying anxiety about what might happen at home that night is far less likely to concentrate on math exercises in class. Moreover, children who are using or exposed to drugs in the home are also more likely to be apathetic or disruptive in class.
“Think of all that interrupted learning,” said Moriarty.
In a further effort to head off drug and alcohol use among students and improve the learning environment, a youth spinoff of Stand Up Laconia – called Stand Up Sachems – has been organized.
Stand Up Sachems helps support prevention activities as well as promote fun activities. Earlier this year it ran the high school Winter Carnival dance, and organized National Prevention Week activities. This fall the group plans to put on a health fair primarily geared toward students, Hamill explained.
The program is up and running at the high school, and there are plans to expand it to the middle school.
“Stand Up Sachems is mainly to educate the kids,” said Adams. “Peer-to-peer education is the best. The idea is to have youth leaders involved — to be the voice of the school,” he added.
Those involved in Stand Up Sachems represent a cross-section of Laconia High’s student body. “These kids are a great mix,” Hamill said. “Some have a lot (of material advantages), and some don’t have much.”
Efforts are now underway to expand Stand Up Sachems to Laconia Middle School.
“These kids are living it,” said Persson. “They know someone who’s died or is using drugs. When people are dying you can’t ignore it,” she continued. “What really brought it home was when middle school students started telling us about these things.”
Conrad and Hamill said that, all things considered, the drug-education and counseling efforts they see are paying off.
“I’ve gained a lot of ground here at the school,” Conrad said.
“We can handle what we face,” remarked Hamill. “It may be a bigger issue in the community.”
When Stand Up Laconia was getting off the ground, Persson said, often she would meet Lakes Region residents who thought drug abuse problems were pretty much confined to Laconia. But that attitude is changing, she said.
“They started to realize that it was their issue too. People are starting to wake up,” she said.