A new Arlington County program will soon offer a second chance for teenagers caught using drugs or alcohol: a three-day session on substance abuse that will take the place of a school suspension or court hearing.
The shift comes as many school districts in the Washington region reevaluate their disciplinary policies, particularly those known as “zero tolerance,” which provide little flexibility once a student is charged.
“The consequences are so dire or life-altering that students and adults are afraid to engage those who might be able help,” said Mary H. Hynes (D), vice chairman of the Arlington County Board.
Beginning in the fall, the Second Chance program will be available to students charged with a first offense of using alcohol or marijuana. To avoid a suspension — a punishment that often complicates a student’s academic trajectory — students must bring a guardian to the three-day session, where experts will detail the risks related to substance abuse.
The program’s architects say that traditional punishments, like suspension and court involvement, are overly punitive and do little to change behavior.
The emphasis on early intervention and parental involvement rather than discipline — an unusual policy in middle and high schools — comes on the heels of new data about drug and alcohol use among Arlington teens. By the time they graduate from high school, 76 percent of Arlington students will have tried alcohol, according to a 2010 Youth Risk behavior survey, and nearly 50 percent will have experimented with illegal drugs.
“Despite Arlington’s advantages, we’re seeing a higher incidence of binge drinking than the national average,” said Kip Laramie, a member of Partnerships for a Healthier Arlington, who helped spearhead the new program.
Fairfax County recently scaled back its disciplinary policies, no longer forcing students to transfer to another school as a part of their punishment.