Portsmouth High drug use called 'persistent' problem
PORTSMOUTH — David Croston says he's been flooded with e-mails and phone calls ever since a March 26 School Committee meeting at which he said the level of drug use at the high school was "appalling."
"I don't regret any of the words I chose," Mr. Croston said Tuesday. "We send our kids off to elementary school and we hover over them. I don't think that changes just because they're in the high school."
The committee will discuss substance abuse in the schools in depth at its April 23 meeting, when it reviews a district-wide survey presented by the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition. Ray Davis, coordinator of the Coalition, said that 1,200 Portsmouth students in grades 7 to 12 were queried in the survey, the largest of its kind ever undertaken in town. Last week Mr. Davis declined to comment on the survey's findings, saying the full report is not yet complete.
Mr. Croston didn't hold his tongue at the March 26 meeting. "As a parent of a child at this school (PHS), I find it appalling," said Mr. Croston, whose daughter is a sophomore at the school.
Since that meeting, Mr. Croston said he has received many e-mails and phone calls — some angry, some supportive. Some people indicated that substance abuse at the high school "is the norm, it's in every school," he said.
"In all my years in the schools, I've never had a subject that's had such a divergent response, where people are either saying there's not a problem or there's a huge problem," he said Tuesday. "It's fascinating to see the dichotomy."
Mr. Croston said his knowledge of substance abuse issues in the school "doesn't begin or end at the administrators' door," noting that he's talked to students, parents and others.
"There is a persistent problem. Whether it be bigger or less than the neighboring high school is not my concern," Mr. Croston said, adding that the schools should promote "zero tolerance" and work toward creating "something that will actually speak to the problem."
The School Department funded half the cost of the survey that was undertaken by the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition and completed in December, said Mr. Croston. According to Mr. Davis, it was the largest survey on substance abuse ever done in Portsmouth.
"The survey was to measure the perceptions of use, the students' opinions about what their parents thought. We had over 1,200 responses, which is absolutely phenomenal," said Mr. Davis, adding that the report also included a series of focus groups with local students, teachers and parents. It also reviewed data from emergency rooms, treatment centers, police arrest records and juvenile hearing boards.
The survey of students in grades 7 to 12 was carried out by John Mattson Consulting, which has done similar work for a number of districts in Rhode Island. Mr. Davis said he attended the three focus groups, which were broken up into grades 7 and 8, 9 and 10 and 11 and 12. "One of the reasons of doing that is that kids tend to be intimidated by older kids," said Mr. Davis, adding that there was another focus group for parents.
Anonymity was guaranteed, he said. "I think people are often under the misconception that people are going to lie to us," said Mr. Davis. "I didn't want a group of students who wanted to tell us what we wanted to hear. The kids were really very honest with us."
Some of the comments students made in the focus groups, he said, "were priceless." But he declined to comment in detail about the report because it's not finished yet.
He did say, however, that marijuana use among juveniles has risen sharply in recent years which he blames partly on a change in attitude. "They see less and less risk involved and they see it like medicine. In the survey, we asked a lot of questions about attitude, because that's what drives behavior. We were hearing, 'Well it's marijuana — It's medicine," said Mr. Davis, referring to the medical marijuana distribution center that's scheduled to open on West Main Road. "Now it could be, but it needs to be tested as with any other drug."
He also pointed to the state's decriminalization of marijuana that kicked in Monday (see related story) and the move by some lawmakers to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island as further reasons for the attitude shift.
School officials have credited administrators for being so forthcoming with any incidents of drug use at the school. As recent as March 14, PHS Principal Robert Littlefield e-mailed parents about two incidents in which three students were arrested on drug charges and suspended for violating the school’s drug and alcohol policy.
At the March 26 School Committee meeting, Mr. Littlefield said he provides the updates "to stimulate the conversation in the home between parents and students." However, he said he doesn't want his transparency to come across as "scientific data" of drug use at the school.
"It doesn't necessarily indicate a trend," he said.
Supt. Lynn Krizic said it's a "double-edged sword" when administrators are forthcoming about such incidents. If transparency wasn't the regular practice in the past, she said, news of any incidents of drug use "can raise alarm" about substance abuse.