Local schools are carrying on the zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies started in 1971 with President Nixon's War on Drugs, despite evolving understanding about those policies' effectiveness and current federal guidelines against suspensions and expulsions.

RSU 3 has seen a rise in expulsions for drug and alcohol-related offenses. In the 2014/2015 school year there were four expulsions, and in 2013/2012, there were three, up from one per year since 2010. Outgoing Superintendent Heather Perry said in a phone interview the increase is partially because of the new way the school is handling violations of its drug policies.

During Perry's first year on the job in 2010, she noted an underlying substance abuse problem at Mount View High and Middle schools. The school board then worked to revise its drug and alcohol policies in 2011. The revised policies include automatic suspension of up to five days for the first offense of possession and automatic expulsion for the first offense of furnishing or distributing drugs or alcohol on school grounds. All but one of the expulsions in 2014-15 dealt with furnishing, Perry said.

On the second offense of violating the policies, a student is automatically suspended for 10 days and must meet with the superintendent for referral to services. After the third offense it is up to the superintendent whether the student will be expelled.

“When it is up to three offenses, that is a problem but there is not a magic number,” Perry said about the decision of whether to expel a student. “It depends on the circumstances.”

As for suspensions, the district reported two in 2014-15 (one for drug and alcohol and one for tobacco-related issues), eight in 2013-14 and seven in 2012-13, all for drug and alcohol-related issues.

The district also works closely with law enforcement when investigating and responding to a violation of its policies. Police need a high threshold to conduct a search of personal property, but “the school has a lower threshold, only reasonable suspicion,” Perry said. The school will initiate an investigation and search based on a rumor, tip or suspicion, and the school resource officer will do a parallel investigation. Any time a student is found in possession of drugs or alcohol, the SRO is informed and charges the student with possession. In addition to the school penalties, there will be a law enforcement process determined by the juvenile justice system, Perry said.

The school considers alcohol and marijuana "gateway drugs," Perry said. However, the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization, reports that most marijuana users never use any other illegal drugs.

RSU 20

RSU 20 has similar “zero tolerance” drug and alcohol policies, according to outgoing Superintendent Brian Carpenter.

On the first offense of violating the policy, Belfast Area High School Assistant Principal Terry Kenniston said the student could be suspended for 5 to10 days. If the student possesses more than a certain amount, he or she could be charged with furnishing and removed for 10 days, and must go before the school board for possible expulsion. The board will set conditions — usually counseling and community service — the student will have to meet before applying to return.

“Every case is different,” Kenniston said. “In a lot of cases they are charged with possession. In some cases, they may be able to share information with us that might help solve a bigger problem, and we take that into account before we decide the consequences.”

Belfast Area High School has had no expulsions in the last two years, but there were four drug and alcohol-related suspensions and eight tobacco-related suspensions in 2014-15. In 2013-14 there were seven drug and alcohol and 13 tobacco-related suspensions. In addition there was one disciplinary referral in 2014-15 and seven in 2013-14 for violations of the athletic drug and alcohol policy.

“Since we’ve added the school resource officer [about seven years ago], our referrals for discipline are down in all areas,” Kenniston said. “That presence has created a much better environment for us. The atmosphere in the building is improved, and usage and distribution is down.”

Federal guidelines

Both superintendents, Perry and Carpenter, said the policies must adhere to federal guidelines as long as the schools receive any federal money. Title IV Section A of the No Child Left Behind Act, “Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities” is the current law regulating school drug and alcohol policies, and is referenced by other districts across the state in their drug and alcohol policies.

However, when asked what those federal guidelines were, both superintendents referred to the legal references listed on the policies. Both district policies cite the “Drug Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989,” a bill that amended a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that has since been omitted. RSU 3's attorney at Drummond Woodsum, a Portland law firm, did not return calls by press time.

According to Cohen, Carpenter also cited federal guidelines when he denied a student’s request for an alternative to expulsion for a first offense during a meeting with Cohen, the student and the student’s mother. But the most recent guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education recommend against using suspensions and expulsions for drug policy offenses.

Those 2014 guidelines, titled “Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline,” state that schools should “explicitly reserve the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and alternative placements for the most egregious disciplinary infractions that threaten school safety.”

The federal Gun-Free School Act, which does require a one-year expulsion for any student who brings a firearm to school, “does not require that states or schools implement wide-ranging zero-tolerance policies or rely on exclusionary discipline for any other types of student misconduct,” the document states.

Under the guiding principle “clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences,” it recommends, “remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, ensure that alternative settings provide academic instruction, and return students to class as soon as possible.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a January 2014 press conference when the guidelines were released: “Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school. Positive discipline policies can help create safer learning environments without relying heavily on suspensions and expulsions. Schools also must understand their civil rights obligations and avoid unfair disciplinary practices. We need to keep students in class where they can learn.”

Regarding referrals to law enforcement, the guidelines state they can have "negative collateral consequences" for students. Schools with school resource officers are advised to ensure the officers are focused on "protecting the physical safety of the school or preventing the criminal conduct of persons other than students, while reducing inappropriate student referrals to law enforcement."

The Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act does not require particular policies, but recommends using research-based prevention programs that fit the particular communities’ needs and include parents in policy development.

It also states policies should “have consequences that are fair and developmentally appropriate; and consider the student and the circumstances of the situation and [be] enforced accordingly.”

The act allows, but does not require, certain activities for drug and violence prevention including installing surveillance cameras and testing students for illegal drugs or inspecting student lockers, but states the latter must be carried out in a way that is “consistent with the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.”

In addition, permissible school prevention and intervention activities include expanding and improving school-based mental health services related to illegal drug use and developing character education programs that "take into account the views of parents of the students for whom the program is intended."

The act requires that schools report information “including a description of how parents were informed of and participated in violence and drug prevention efforts,” but this is not enforced. Maine Department of Education Communications Director Anne Gabbianelli said the only reporting local schools must do is check a box on their consolidated application and performance reports saying they comply with federal policy.

Perry said the RSU 3 drug and alcohol policy was developed by the school board. “There was no specific public involvement or student involvement, but everything was done in public so that people who might have wanted to have a voice could have one," she said. "We did just do a huge revision to our extra- and co-curricular handbook on the substance abuse portion, and that involved students and parents and a much more open process.”

Education, intervention

RSU 3 does include education and intervention elements in its substance abuse prevention efforts. The RSU uses a curriculum called “Second Step” at the elementary level, which teaches social and emotional skills aimed at reducing impulsive and aggressive behavior and increasing social competence. The curriculum is included in the U.S. Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s database of evidence-based prevention programs.

RSU 3 has a partnership with Day One, a six-month residential substance abuse counseling and treatment program on the campus of Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield. According to Day One interim President Rich Abromson, up to 14 male students may be referred to the program, and RSU 3 supplies teachers and materials with the students. Academic credits are transferred back to the district and the program can also award diplomas.

“It is far better to be here than incarcerated,” Abromson said.

RSU 3 also works with Sweetser, which provides all social and clinical school-based counseling services. But because Sweetser deals with mental health issues in general, the RSU 3 board recently added a new social worker position to focus specifically on substance abuse. The new social worker will provide on-site drug counseling to students and families.

Illegal substances still present

Carpenter said although the policy is strict, he does not think it is a deterring factor for individuals. Some students also think their schools' efforts to address student drug and alcohol use are not effective.

A senior at Mount View said alcohol and marijuana use are common among students off school grounds, but sometimes they bring substances to school. He said he hears students talk about smoking marijuana on the bus rides to and from school, and that another senior was sent home from the class trip to Portland because he brought along and drank a two-liter bottle of whiskey and Coke.

Ariel Connell, a senior at Mount View, said, “I feel like even if they do enforce [the drug and alcohol policy], it doesn't help anything. For some kids it's a big problem. If they're going to do it, they're going to do it, and they don't care what the school says about it.”

Two juniors from Belfast Area High School said having the SRO there “doesn't really help; there are still a lot of drugs and alcohol,” and that of people who were suspended for drug or alcohol use, “it didn't really do anything.”

Nathan Hamm, a ninth grader at Belfast Area High School, said he wishes the policies were more effective but less broad. “They can do it out of school for all I care,” he said. “But I think that inside the school itself, it shouldn't be here because it's a public learning facility. I could understand if you need to take allergy meds during the day, but you can't even have ibuprofen on you without getting suspended. It's a big deal.”

Parent apathy?

Administrators say that one cause of the problem is parents who turn a blind eye to their children’s substance abuse.

“Drugs are part of the culture here,” Carpenter said. “When parents are involved in the drug world, it makes it more convenient for students to get drugs, and parents look the other way. ”

Perry said there is an underlying culture among a subgroup of students where parents are more open to the use of alcohol and marijuana.

“The overall culture contributes to the problem we see,” she said. “However, I would not say every family is complacent.”

A senior from Mount View agreed. “There are absolutely parents in the district who allow their children to [smoke marijuana and drink alcohol], if not share it with them themselves," he said. "I would say a good portion of RSU 3 parents are lenient in that regard.”

Hamm said, “There's going to be strict parents and non-strict parents, and that's pretty much what it comes down to. There's even some parents that encourage the use of marijuana.”

A former Searsport High School student suggests it is a matter of a difference in perspective between some parents and the school administrators. “There's a lot of parents who don’t look at it the same way that the school does,” she said. “That's because a lot of the parents are OK with it or they do it too, and [while] the school is very strict and [concerned with] policy, not everybody is going to be that way. For some of the parents, if the kids get in trouble, it's not as big of a deal as it is to the school.”

Maine's latest Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey conducted in 2008 showed that, in Waldo County, 39.6 percent of 10th graders and 48.9 percent of 12th graders agreed with the statement, “parental attitude favors drug use.” The report states this is not significantly different from the statewide results.

Rural setting, mixed messages, individual reasons

Other factors that may be contributing to youth drug and alcohol use include the low population of the area as well as the mixed messages youth receive from a variety of sources in and out of school.

Studies show that nationwide, drug and alcohol abuse is higher in rural than in urban areas. One 2007 study by David Hartley at University of Southern Maine compared drug and alcohol use among youth from urban areas, rural areas adjacent to urban areas, large rural towns with 20,000 or more residents, and small rural towns. All of the towns in Waldo County fall in the small rural category. He found children aged 12-17 from the small rural areas are more likely to engage in binge drinking (drinking five or more alcoholic beverages in a row), heavy driving (binge drinking five or more times a month), and driving under the influence than children in any other area studied. The study also found that methamphetamine and Oxycontin use by youth in small rural areas is nearly twice as common as it is in urban areas.

In 2001, AdCare Educational Institute of Maine convened The Youth Empowerment and Policy Project, a group of students from around the state trained in public speaking, facilitation and policy issues, to tackle the issue of underage drinking. Over the next 11 years, the group worked on a report that identified many factors that contribute to youth drug and alcohol abuse and made recommendations for policies.

The group did not list parent apathy among its findings, but did note that teachers telling stories in class of inappropriate drug and alcohol use make their teaching of ethical behavior confusing and ineffective. Their report also noted the media's portrayal of youth using drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and consistent marketing of some of those substances to youth, also contribute to the mixed messages students receive.

Tim Woitowitz, who runs the youth support group Making Change, said in an interview that pinpointing the reason an individual young person is using drugs or alcohol is the most important step to addressing the problem.

“There are a lot of reasons kids turn to drugs or alcohol," he said. "Think of what it was like when you were a kid and how tragic little things were. Remember a time when you were lonely, or you broke up with your boyfriend or girlfriend. That's tragic for them. Little things like that — being bullied, not being in with the cool kids. A lot of kids use drugs because it makes them feel like they're part of something.

“You have to find the 'why,'” Woitowitz said. "Why are the kids doing drugs? Once you find that out, everything else falls into place.”

Student, parent and staff perspectives

The Journal contacted students and parents in the two districts and asked for their opinions on their schools' drug and alcohol policies.

Most parents said they did not know enough about the policy to form an opinion. A grandmother of a child in Mount View Middle School said “[Drug and alcohol policies] can never be strict enough.” The father of a senior at Mount View thought they were too strict.

“The schools should deal with the students directly, not give them a record,” he said.

A former Searsport High School student who graduated in 2014 said, “If you get caught doing something bad you're automatically referred to suspension and all that, you're not given a warning or a second chance. They should put you in counseling at least or talk to you instead of automatically nailing you and getting cops involved and all that stress.”

A student who will be entering ninth grade at Belfast Area High School in the fall said her brother went to the school and had a three-day suspension a couple of years ago for having chewing tobacco in his mouth.

“That made things worse,” she said. “He kept doing more and more different drugs after that. Nothing changed.”

Judy Cohen, student assistance counselor at Searsport High School, said she has a lot of concerns about RSU 20’s policy, but hopes that it will change once the district splits.

“Of course we don’t want drugs in schools,” she said, “but I think automatic expulsion is a terrible thing."

“I don’t believe zero tolerance is the way to go when dealing with young people because it alienates them further, it doesn’t give them a second chance, and doesn’t allow the school to help the student. I’d rather have restorative practices. I believe in hearing the full story and applying the right consequences, something meaningful that fits the crime."

She said a “very smart” senior shared a pipe of marijuana with a friend in the school parking lot, and since sharing is considered furnishing, he was expelled. That set him on a course of drinking more, and derailed him academically so he couldn’t graduate.

“In my personal and professional opinion, that is not what students need,” Cohen said. “Students are trying to climb out of poverty and out of so much … going on at home, and this is what we do to them? Most likely they need some help, some attention, someone to take them under their wing and set them straight, not to be kicked to the curb and told they’re worthless.”

Additional attempts to speak with staff and administrators at Mount View High School were referred back to the superintendent.

While RSU 3 and RSU 20 do include helpful education, prevention and intervention components in their drug and alcohol policies, the disciplinary measures are out of date.

As all districts are preparing to welcome new superintendents and RSU 20 officially split into two new districts, their boards may choose to revisit those discipline policies. The U.S. Department of Education offers resources to help schools, parents and communities work together to develop appropriate and effective policies to combat teen substance abuse. Find the links online at www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline.

A previous version of this story misstated the number of expulsions and suspensions in RSU 20. The numbers only include Belfast Area High School.