Cases of alcohol and drug use in Loudoun schools remain low, officials say

January 16, 2012

When six students ages 12 to 14 were found to be under the influence of alcohol at J. Lunsford Middle School in Chantilly, the incident sparked a flurry of media coverage. Television crews flocked to the school, and reports about the intoxicated youngsters spread across news sites and blogs.

“Of course, it gets everyone’s attention,” Barbara Nichols, director of middle school education for Loudoun public schools, said of the Jan. 5 incident. “You’re concerned . . . not only for your own child, but for children in general.”

Despite the media attention, she said — one local news anchor called the incident “stunning” — the episode is an aberration rather than a growing trend: In Loudoun County, which has one of the region’s fastest-growing school systems, reported incidents involving drugs and alcohol in middle schools and high schools have remained consistently low in the past decade.

That fact, paired with a strong sense of community and open communication at the school, helped ensure a measured response to the incident, school officials said. Lunsford Middle School Principal Neil Slevin said that he received only about four or five e-mails from parents, all offering their support of the school, according to Wayde Byard, Loudoun schools spokesman. There were no negative phone calls, Slevin said. Nichols said she did not receive any complaints from parents or other community members about how the matter was addressed.

Nichols said the Lunsford incident, while disturbing, is fairly unusual. The county generally has an average of 24 alcohol-
related incidents a year in its 14 middle schools and 12 high schools, she said.

“That’s very low. But with a middle-school-age child, they tend to do things in groups. So when you have an incident such as the one at Lunsford, it’s usually a bunch of kids at one time,” she said. “But we do not have a large number of alcohol-related incidents that take place during school, or on the way to school.”

School officials said the numbers have held steady because of a comprehensive and effective approach to addressing alcohol and drug use, starting in elementary school and continuing until high school graduation.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, Loudoun reported 198 offenses related to drug and alcohol use in the 2010-11 school year, involving about 0.3 percent of the school’s total population of roughly 63,000 students that year. That’s slightly less than the percentage — about 0.5 percent — reported from neighboring jurisdictions such as Prince William and Fairfax counties, although Fairfax has a significantly larger school system, with more than 174,000 students last year.

“Even with the rapid growth in the school system, the incidents of substance abuse have remained low,” said Allyne Zappalla, supervisor of student support services for county schools. “We have a very strong substance abuse prevention education and early intervention program.”

Loudoun uses a two-pronged approach, Zappalla said.

“In elementary schools, there is prevention education using positive intervention,” she said. “We teach them ways that they can approach situations from a positive perspective, to help prevent the development of a possible substance abuse problem . . . and to help keep them from becoming at risk.”

In middle and high schools, the subject of substance abuse is addressed through health class presentations and intervention support groups for students who might be dealing with a number of issues that could put them at risk, Zappalla said. A network of school counselors, social workers and substance abuse specialists works to identify early warning signs and intervene quickly to help any child who might be particularly vulnerable to drugs or alcohol, she said.

“We get referrals from parents, other students, from counselors and teachers,” she said.

“We know what the signs and symptoms are, so we can identify a problem early . . . then we have a better chance of a really positive outcome.”

About eight years ago, Loudoun also launched its Safe School Ambassador program, which uses popular students to help foster a positive environment.

“We take socially influential students and train them on how to intervene in situations involving mistreatment,” Zappalla said. “The idea is to change the school climate in a positive way, with students as the force behind that.”

Students who are identified as leaders in social circles are connected with adults who meet with them monthly to train the students to intervene if they see peers being subjected to peer pressure or bullying, she said.

Student support services also include regular educational sessions with students and parents about the danger of substance abuse, she said.

The Lunsford incident was rather timely, Zappalla added: “The presentations for Lunsford will start February 1, for the seventh-graders,” she said. “Then we have a PTA presentation scheduled for February 21.”

Although the event is certain to be addressed at those meetings, she said, school staff members will focus on using the episode as a way to emphasize the importance of keeping strong partnerships between parents and school administrators.

“If we have parents who are proactive and willing to be involved with us, we are able to provide a continuum of care, starting with prevention, education and early intervention,” she said.

Nichols noted that there were positive aspects of the Jan. 5 incident. The problem was identified and dealt with quickly, and none of the students required medical attention, she said. Most important, the issue was reported to school authorities by other kids who were concerned by the behavior of their peers, she said

“We feel really good about that,” Nichols said. “Children are looking out for the safety of other children, and that's exactly what we want.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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