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An Acceping Culture Is Cited as School Eyes Marijuana Use

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For students at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, it's as commonplace
as the pencils and notebooks: kids bringing marijuana to school or showing up
for class when they're high.

The principal describes it as "epidemic," and students say pot is pervasive,
used by a vast number of their peers on campus.

Last November, school administrators expelled two students for possession of
marijuana and suspended another three who were found to be under the influence
of the drug while at school.

Alarmed by the recent incidents, principal Peg Regan is trying to clamp down,
but there's one thing standing in her way - a culture of acceptance around
marijuana that starts in the school hallways and seems to extend across the
Island.

"I was astounded by the epidemic of possession and use inside the school.
Do the
parents support this? Is the community that tolerant of marijuana use?" said
Mrs. Regan.

In November, she turned to the school advisory council (SAC) for some guidance,
sparking a discussion over how to deal with the problem and mete out the
appropriate punishment.

No simple answers emerged.

Student members of the advisory council told the Gazette this week that use of
marijuana is deeply rooted in teen culture, widely accepted among the students
at the regional high school and easily concealed.

"Kids are smart enough not to do it in the bathroom," said sophomore Duncan
Pickard, a member of the school advisory council and a student
representative to
the regional school committee. "A lot of kids bring it to school, and I've seen
it being sold. There are so many kids that do it, that you don't feel
uncomfortable about it."

Michelle Holmberg, a high school senior and member of the SAC, said many
students simply feel entitled to use marijuana and make no effort to curtail
their habit on school days.

"The use of marijuana is widespread throughout the school," she said. "It's not
just select groups. I know of many students who leave school for a little while
to do it. They schedule it if they have study hall first period or work-study .
. . or they come to school high."

Statistics only bear out the anecdotal assessments from students. According
to a
behavior risk survey released almost two years ago, 44 per cent of Vineyard
high
school students reported having smoked marijuana in the past 30 days, which is
defined as current use.

That's more than double the national rate. Roughly 20 per cent of the nation's
10th and 12th graders reported that they are current users, according to a
study
by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Alcohol use among Vineyard teens, according to the 2002 survey results, still
outpaces pot: 58 per cent reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days.

But those numbers don't reflect a significant difference. While more teens may
be drinking alcohol, they're holding off until the weekends. Pot smoking,
on the
other hand, is more likely to happen on a daily basis.

"Kids aren't drinking every day, but a lot of kids are smoking every day," said
Amy Lilavois, a substance abuse counselor at Island Counseling who works with
young people.

The reasons are pretty obvious. "It's easier to get away with. People don't
always know if you're under the influence," said Ms. Lilavois. "If it's a
Wednesday at three in the afternoon, most parents aren't expecting their kids
are high."

High school guidance counselor John Fiorito said marijuana is easy for teens to
obtain. "It's so accessible. So many older kids are willing to get it for them.
They're working with them, dating them or they're stealing their parents'
stash," he said.

Indeed, while there are no statistics to show what percentage of adults on the
Island count themselves as pot-smokers, counselors and police believe the
problem lies not so much with the teenagers as with the Vineyard community at
large.

"Children here are a reflection of the adults, and we have a high percentage of
adult abusers of pot and alcohol," said West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey.

The problem runs so deep that counselors approach it from a harm reduction
standpoint, urging their young patients to cut back on the daily
pot-smoking and
indulge only on the weekends.

"What concerns me most is when the use is daily, when it precedes school or
happens during school," said Rob Doyle, a substance abuse counselor at Island
Counseling. "The main effect from pot is that it debilitates people. They drop
off teams or their grades go down."

"Once somebody starts smoking every day, they think their lives are fine," said
Ms. Lilavois. "When they stop, they're like "'Whoa, I wasn't doing anything, I
was dozing in classes and my grades were off.' "

Chief Toomey said that while marijuana is not physically addictive, it is
psychologically addictive. "You're getting dependent on it. If kids are
using it
consistently, they're missing out on developmental parts of life. If you're
young and using it, you stop developing coping skills," she said.

Both the chief and Ms. Lilavois emphasized that marijuana is much more potent
today than it was 20 years ago, with much higher levels of the active
ingredient, THC.

Despite the concerns about the drug and its impact, there's ambivalence about
the appropriate response.

Only a fraction of the Island teens who report using pot are actually caught by
either school officials or police. Consider the raw numbers. If 44 per cent of
Vineyard high school students say they are current users, that's well over 300
teenagers.

But in the last 10 years, only 26 students ended up being expelled from the
regional high school for drug possession. In the last three years, Island
police
have charged 25 juveniles with possession of marijuana, nearly all of whom
ended
up in a six-month diversion program run by the Cape and Islands District
Attorneys Office.

Kathy Quatromoin, the head of that program, said the recidivism rate is very
low. "Overall, we're at 93 per cent. Most go on their way and we don't hear
from
them again," she said.

The program functions much like probation, mandating counseling for the
juvenile
and sometimes the family while also requiring random drug testing. The carrot,
said Ms. Quatromoin, is a clean record at the end of six months.

When it comes to marijuana enforcement, Oak Bluffs police Sgt. Tim Williamson
said "We're certainly not aggressive, but we're also not passive."

The sergeant said that officers are aware of the acceptance of marijuana on the
Vineyard and cognizant of how most charges play out in Edgartown district court
- - a $50 fine and a case continued without finding.

State police Sgt. Jeff Stone said, "We're more concerned about heroin and
cocaine use with the kids. We're absolutely against anyone dealing marijuana,
and that's who we go after aggressively. "

Back at the Vineyard high school, the looming threat is expulsion, ranging from
one to two quarters. That's what happened to the two students caught with
pot in
November.

"I mentioned it at a faculty meeting, and some faculty were shocked we expelled
on first offense," said Mrs. Regan.

At least two teachers argued for leniency for the expelled students, and some
have recommended a two strikes policy before expelling a student. But then the
punishment would be permanent with no chance of coming back to the high school,
the principal said.

Clearly, the high school is wrangling over the best deterrents, especially when
the drug seems to be so entrenched in the students' lives.

"What's appropriate given the community view of marijuana and when,
according to
the students, it's not a big deal?" asked Mrs. Regan.

Since November, the principal has opted to reinforce what's spelled out in the
school handbook. Every morning now in home rooms, television screens flash this
blunt reminder: "Stop and think. If you bring drugs to school, you will face
expulsion."

Enforcing the school drug policies is a dicey issue when there's no pot or
paraphernalia to be found, only the suspicion that a student is high.

In the case of the three students suspended in November, the smell of marijuana
was the tell-tale sign. The school nurse also weighs in on the determination.

At last November's SAC meeting, Jim Reynolds, a board member and parent who
also
happens to be an attorney, pointed to the legal and ethical minefield inherent
in declaring a student is under the influence of marijuana.

"It's not like there's a breathalyzer they can take," said Mr. Reynolds.

The three students who were deemed to be under the influence of marijuana were
each suspended for up to two weeks, said Mrs. Regan.

The principal has asked health teachers to survey students about their
attitudes
on marijuana and what the school's response should be. "I want to measure the
culture of tolerance or intolerance," she said.

"My assumption is that most kids don't want drugs in school," she added. "I'm
hoping that's the kind of culture elicited."

It will likely be the only survey results the high school sees this year. State
funding for the behavior risk surveys, given every two years since 1999, has
been cut.

Meanwhile, the task of putting a dent in the pot-smoking habit of Island teens
could be a real challenge. "There are many households where we know the adults
are smoking pot," said Chief Toomey. "How do we preach to those kids?"


Pubdate: Fri, 09 Jan 2004
Source: Vineyard Gazette
Author: Chris Burrell
Contact: news@mvgazette.com
Website: The Vineyard Gazette - Martha's Vineyard News
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Copyright: 2004 Vineyard Gazette, Inc.