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The St. Mark's Approach to Drug and Alcohol Use and Prevention


Head's Reflection
October 10, 2018

I am deeply concerned about the dangers that drug and alcohol use pose for St. Mark's students. Any report of a drug, or alcohol-related adolescent tragedy, especially involving someone known to a member of the St. Mark's community, chills me to the bone. I am also keenly aware that the possibility of a drug or alcohol related tragedy in our school community is very real, as are short or long-term negative health consequences resulting from use.

The topic of teen drug and alcohol use has been especially on my mind recently for a couple of reasons. First, evidence of unchaperoned parties in student homes that included drugs and alcohol prompted a number of local heads, primarily of day schools, to send a letter to their parents a few weeks ago asking for support in preventing that practice. And second, numerous articles during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings have conveyed an unflattering impression about drug and alcohol use at independent schools that has existed for many decades.[1]

While we at St. Mark's are certainly not complacent about drug and alcohol use among our students, evidence indicates that—in relative terms—use among our students falls below a level to cause undue alarm. In 2017, the Independent School Health Check (ISHC) was administered to all Forms in the St. Mark's community. According to the data submitted, St. Mark's students reported being offered, sold, or given illegal drugs less than students in other independent schools that participated in the study. When comparing the results from the ISHC, St. Mark's students fell below the national average of teenage marijuana and alcohol use reported in the nationally administered Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Additionally, St. Mark's students indicated, on the ISHC, a higher degree of parent presence at gatherings in their homes than of students at the other independent schools surveyed.

However, the evidence about the dangers of adolescent drug and alcohol use is stark. According to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism article, "people who reported starting to drink before the age of 15 were four times more likely to also report meeting the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives."[2] The article also cites research which shows "that the younger children and adolescents are when they start to drink, the more likely they will be to engage in behaviors that harm themselves and others," for example using other drugs such as marijuana and cocaine or engaging in risky sexual behavior.[3]

Studies referenced in a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) article indicate that the earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely he or she is to experience "functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control, and those changes may last a long time after a person has stopped taking drugs."[4] The NIDA also reports that while drug use can, initially, promote a perception of positive effects, "over time, if drug use continues, other pleasurable activities become less pleasurable, and the person has to take the drug just to feel 'normal.'"[5]

"Unfortunately," according to a Partnership for Drug-Free Kids report, "parents can't just gaze into a crystal ball to find out whether their kids will face problems with drinking or drug use in their teenage years."[6] Common factors that increase the risk for developing a drug or alcohol problem include a family history of drug or alcohol dependence, psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a history of one or more traumatic events, or difficulty controlling impulses. Reasons to use drugs and alcohol include role modeling of parents and other adults and peers, messages conveyed by popular culture, misinformation about the effects of drugs and alcohol, and the desire to self-medicate due to unhappiness, boredom, rebellion, or a search for instant gratification.[7]

This evidence indicates that any drug or alcohol use at St. Mark's poses a serious risk to our students and that we need to employ the most sophisticated policies and practices to get as close to zero use as is humanly possible. Zero use among St. Mark's students however, while an admirable goal, is an unrealistic expectation, given the reasons reported in the research studies for student drug and alcohol use. That said, we are doing everything we possibly can to minimize that use among St. Mark's students, and we constantly assess our policies and practices to determine if there is something more—or better—that we can do.

Experts agree that there are a number of messages and means that parents and schools can employ to encourage the non-use of drugs and alcohol and to help students who do use change their behavior. These measures include providing accurate information, both in the home and at school, about the effects of drug and alcohol. Also helpful are carefully conceived initiatives to counteract the social messages about drugs and alcohol conveyed by advertising and media, interventions to address underlying factors that lead to drug and alcohol use in individual students, and clear and consistently applied discipline policies that support existing laws about drug and alcohol use.[8]

While recognizing that no approach can be guaranteed to be perfect in its application, I am currently satisfied by the way our School's policies and practices align with the advice of experts. We provide accurate information about the effects of drug and alcohol use in a number of forums, including the IV Form health education classes. These forums also seek to counteract the social messages about drugs and alcohol conveyed by advertising and the media.

Older St. Mark's students engaging in conversation with younger St. Mark's students about drug and alcohol use is certainly a more effective way to provide accurate information and counteract social messages than adult lectures. We are fortunate that our Monitors are willing to make the case for a drug-and alcohol-free campus. Counselor Veronica Barila praised their work enthusiastically in a recent email: "a huge thanks to all of you in facilitating our conversations today about stigma associated with substance abuse. You all did a wonderful job! You may not realize how incredibly powerful it is to have older students promote substance abuse education. It sets the tone that drinking and vaping is not cool and it's not a celebrated part of the St. Mark's culture."


V Form Peer Discussion Leaders discuss social messages, peer pressure, and other factors that can lead to drug and alcohol use in biweekly small group discussions with III Formers. Also helpful, our Student Discipline Committee, represented by members of every Form, take initiatives to support healthy choices. Last year, Student Discipline Committee Head Jamie Lance convinced the Dean of Students' Office to offer students over 1,400 chicken nuggets on a fall Saturday night to celebrate the fact that no drug or alcohol discipline incident had occurred. This year's Student Discipline Committee Head, Matthew Gates, recently organized a second "Chicken Nugs not Drugs" Saturday night event and pitched it very eloquently at School Meeting.


Also aligned with the advice of experts, our School takes many steps to address underlying factors that lead to drug and alcohol use in individual students. The engaging nature and full participation in campus life of our two clinically licensed counselors, Jennifer Taylor, MA, CAAGS, and Veronica Barila, LICSW, reduce the stigma of seeking help for anxiety or depression, significant contributing factors to drug and alcohol use. A Student Support Team, which includes the Counselors, the Director of Health Services, other members of the Dean of Students Office, the Academic Dean and the Chaplain, meet weekly to identify—and develop a support plan for—students who seem not to be fully thriving. The group picks up information from Advisors, House Heads, House Prefects, and other community members who sense a student's need for extra support, and that extra support, skillfully applied, can counteract the temptation to use drugs or alcohol.

Our Faculty Assisting Student Team (FASTeam) also seeks to address underlying factors that can lead to drug and alcohol use. If faculty, staff or students observe behaviors that might result from drug or alcohol use they can make confidential referrals to the FASTeam. A FASTeam member (one of the Counselors, the Director of Health Services, or a trained faculty member) will then seek out the student of concern in a confidential manner that lies outside the discipline realm. Evidence demonstrates that these conversations can begin a constructive dialogue that leads to healthier choices.

As with many peer schools, our concern for our students' safety has prompted us to develop a Sanctuary policy whereby a student can report to a faculty or staff member the existence of a peer's intoxication or drug use. The Sanctuary policy also enables a student who has taken drugs or alcohol and is worried about their own safety to seek out the help of an adult. Sanctuary cases remain outside the discipline process. Students are referred to the Health Center under the Sanctuary policy, and they receive the professional attention they need both in the moment and in subsequent counseling.

I am aware that the relationship between Sanctuary and the School's disciplinary policy can create confusion, and we work hard to provide education to students to overcome that confusion. Despite this challenge, I am relieved to know that our Sanctuary policy has prevented potential tragedy and has facilitated interventions which have changed the behavior of numerous students over the years.

The discipline component of our School's effort to minimize student drug and alcohol can be controversial when invoked and can raise differences of opinion about its efficacy of implementation. While I certainly understand these reactions, I am confident, based on experience and on what is considered best practice, that our approach to discipline for drug and alcohol use is developmentally appropriate and that it is clear and applied with the greatest degree of consistency and care that is humanly possible. Also important to the efficacy of our discipline approach is a regular systematic evaluation in which we examine the most recent relevant research and reach out to peer schools for information about practices that we might consider adopting.

Our discipline policy is typically "two strikes" for drug and alcohol use. A student who comes before the Student Discipline Committee for a first offense for drug or alcohol use can expect a four-day suspension. A student who comes before the Student Discipline Committee a second time for a drug or alcohol offense can normally expect be dismissed.[9]

I recognize that the strictness of this discipline response can be painful emotionally, and I recognize that suspension—a temporary separation from the community to simulate the permanent removal that can result from a second similar offense—does not always yield the desired degree of reflection. On the other hand, we take a number of caring steps to support students at the time of a suspension and afterwards. Those who work these students—and the School community at large--convey the message that we separate the act from the actor at St. Mark's, thus helping to smooth reentry. In addition, many adults—the advisor, the Dean of Students, the Director of College Counseling—provide advice about how students returning from suspension can authentically demonstrate that the behavior which led to the discipline is an aberration.

Consistent with the information referenced above about the approaches that help minimize drug and alcohol use, our drug and alcohol discipline policy is intended to serve as a deterrent to student drug and alcohol use. Equally important, and consistent with advice that appears in the research, our drug and alcohol discipline policy supports existing laws about drug and alcohol use in a manner that local law enforcement officials consider appropriate.

We also view our drug and alcohol discipline policy as another way we can address underlying factors that lead to drug and alcohol use. Students who appear before the Student Discipline Committee for first time drug or alcohol use must engage in discussion with a trained professional about that behavior.
This approach has helped a number of students address underlying factors thus promoting a healthy change in their attitude toward drugs and alcohol and their life overall.

Every aspect of our School's approach to drug and alcohol use is a fundamental part of our effort to ensure the safety of our students. Indeed, ensuring that safety is my highest priority. I also know that few school topics—especially boarding school topics—are more complicated than the approach to drugs and alcohol. I take great comfort in the sophistication of the St. Mark's approach and our ongoing assessment and refinement of that approach. I take great comfort, too, in the way our parents, as demonstrated by the quantitative data and my direct experience, work with us—even in moments of disagreement about elements of our policy or its application—in the common goal of ensuring the safety of our students.

[1] See, for example, https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/9/27/1790992... and https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a23512855/br...
[2] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Alcohol Alert, Number 67, January 2006, "Underage Drinking,", p. 1
[3] Ibid.
[4] National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), "Drug Misuse and Addition," 2018, pp. 5 & 1.
[5] Ibid, p. 2.
[6] Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, "Preventing Teen Drug Use: Risk Factors & Why Teens Use.," p. 1. [7] Ibid., pp.2-5.
[8] Partnership, p. 5, NIAAA, p. 3.
[9] The two strike approach does not hold for a student who comes before the Student Discipline Committee because of distributing drugs or alcohol. That student can, normally, expect to be dismissed after the first appearance.

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John Warren '74