PORTSMOUTH — In a cramped upstairs meeting room at First Student Bus Co. Tuesday morning, many of the 30 or so drivers and aides sitting before Ray Davis nodded along when he described how quickly kids let their guard down when they board their yellow coaches.
“I don’t know why, but I think for some reason a lot of students think you’re all deaf and you can’t see in those mirrors,” said Mr. Davis, the coordinator of the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition.
Bus drivers and aides, he said, make up a critical line of defense in helping the community keep kids away from drugs and alcohol.
“More than anybody else, you know these children. I see you come by my house and I see the interaction between the bus aides and the bus drivers and these kids,” he said.
The Portsmouth and Tiverton prevention coalitions — armed with coffee and doughnuts — met with all bus drivers and aides in Tiverton on Monday and in Portsmouth on Tuesday to acknowledge their importance in helping to keep students safe from substance abuse. They also shared updated information on substance abuse trends locally, so that drivers and aides will know what they should be looking for.
Bus drivers have a unique pulse on the community like no one else, said Rebecca Elwell, coordinator of the Tiverton Prevention Coalition. Police and firefighters, she said, know the streets well.
“But they don’t necessarily know the kids,” said Ms. Elwell. “You sort of trump them on that. You know the children, you know the families and you know the whole geographic area of your town. You’re in a unique position to know when something isn’t quite right. We do appreciate the fact that you do notice and you follow up on those things.”
Mr. Davis said the coalitions were not asking drivers and aides to act as police officers. “I know you have good policies in place. You do a really fine job and a really important job and I don’t think you’re appreciated enough in this community,” he said.
Mr. Davis shared an example of how bus drivers’ input proved to be invaluable at the local level. While leading a parent group at Portsmouth High School, two bus drivers who attended said they had seen students smoking cigarettes outside the school while class was in session.
“Which is a no-no. Those doors are supposed to be locked. We would have never known this if it wasn’t for those two drivers,” he said. “I learned so much from those two individual bus drivers who were in that group, more than I learned from any textbook or from anybody else.”
Mr. Davis told the gathering to keep an eye out for marijuana, which is now “genetically engineered” to be more potent than ever.
While alcohol is still the most abused drug in Portsmouth, he said, “Kids have told us in focus groups that it’s easier to get marijuana in Portsmouth than it is to get alcohol. Why is that? There’s more marijuana available now than there was back in the old hippie days and I speak from personal experience.”
He also said the rise in medical marijuana distribution centers, such as Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center on West Main Road, have given students the false sense that pot is completely safe. “It’s medicine,” he said, quoting from local students. “We’ve got a store where you can get it legally, so …”
Mr. Davis also pointed to the rise in oxycodone and heroin overdoses in Rhode Island. “That all starts with prescription drugs,” he said, adding that local kids are telling the coalition that prescription pill abuse starts at age 10 and younger.
Ms. Elwell told bus drivers and aides to be aware of the new e-cigarettes, referring to the battery-powered devices which simulate tobacco smoking by producing a smoke-like vapor. There have been reports of kids putting “hash oil” in e-cigarettes and taking quick hits during the day, she said, although there’s no evidence yet that it’s happening locally.
Less support in Portsmouth
Their help is needed more than ever, Mr. Davis told bus drivers and aides, since the town as a whole doesn’t support his group’s efforts as much as it should.
That point, he said, was driven home Monday night when the Town Council, reviewing its provisional budget, level-funded the town’s appropriation to the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition at $10,000 for the next fiscal year. (The coalition had asked for a $5,000 increase.)
The Town of Tiverton, meanwhile, pays a student assistance counselor about $40,000 to help with substance abuse issues in that town, said Ms. Elwell. She hasn’t asked for a cash donation from the town, she said, because the Tiverton Prevention Coalition applied for and won a large federal grant — $125,000 annually over five years.
The Portsmouth coalition has applied for an identical grant, said Mr. Davis.
“But I can’t bank on that because of the competition; that’s a national grant,” he said, noting that federal cuts are being made to substance abuse programs. The town won’t know if it was awarded the grant until August or September, he said.
Ms. Elwell, who doesn’t live in Portsmouth but whose children have attended its schools, said the town needs to do more to support student assistance, at least at the middle and high schools.
“And they’re not. That’s their first line of defense in those schools is to have somebody designated,” she said. “That grant is only money. That’s not necessarily what the town needs to step up and provide. It’s the support and that prioritization.”