A kindergarten student asked to talk to her teacher for a minute — there was something important they had to say. The kid’s mom had dropped them off at school, then told them she was going to kill herself.
The five-year-old was worried; how would they be able to cook for their three-year old sibling without their mom? They didn’t even know how to turn on the oven.
Skyview High counselor Tina Boone shared the story and similar stories during a Rimrock Foundation conference Friday as an example of the collateral damage of substance abuse that schools deal with.
The school notified police, and the kid’s mom was found alive. But there’s not a nice, neat happy ending. The family was affected by substance abuse, and it continues to be. Like many in that situation, they move around a lot. The kid has struggled with attendance. Statistically, they’re likely to face an uphill climb toward educational success.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Brenda Koch, a School District 2 administrator who oversees principals. “It might sound that way, but the support of the community has been overwhelming.”
She and Boone emphasized that schools aren’t medical institutions; they’re not equipped to offer clinical support to students affect by addiction, trauma, and mental health problems.
They highlighted that work groups like Rimrock, the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, and Tumbleweed do in conjunction with schools, lending expertise that the district lacks.
“The wrap-around services are so important,” Boone said.
But many of those services are paid for from a budget structure that wasn’t designed with social workers or substance abuse counselors in mind.
“The old system doesn’t fit,” Koch said.
Part of what schools do try to do is provide a welcoming climate, said Skyview principal Deb Black, giving kids a place to at least feel safe when they might not outside of school. In some cases, that means being more flexible.
“There’s violence at home, parents in jail, but just if you could come to high school and learn algebra that would be great,” Black said, acknowledging the difficulty of learning while dealing with out-of-school issues.
The stereotype is that it's possible to spot students struggling with those issues — kids who seem depressed or don't fit in with their peers.
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In reality, Boone said, mental health issues affect a wide spectrum of students, from star athletes to top students to social butterflies.
School officials also highlighted substance abuse among students. Most notable has been a meteoric rise in vaping.
“Kids think that vaping is safe,” Black said. “They think that it’s just a bunch of steam.”
Federal and state health officials have advised against vaping amid an outbreak of severe lung disease associated with e-cigarette use. According to the Centers for Disease control, 16% of the 805 confirmed cases have been in users under age 18.
Regardless of the outbreak, the CDC recommends that youth and young adults do not use e-cigarettes, and officials have said that vaping products carry some of the same nicotine-related health risks as smoking.
Vaping is easy for students to conceal; some e-cigarette devices look innocuous, disguised as things like USB drives. But Skyview school resource officer Tim Doll said that schools didn’t get ahead of the curve well.
When vaping gained popularity a few years ago, “we weren’t accepting that we had a problem and we had to fix it,” he said.
Doll wrote about 40 percent more vaping citations last school year than the year before, but there’s been an early dip this year, especially among freshman who were previously most likely to get busted.
When Doll asked a group of students, they said that the word was out that he was a jerk who wouldn’t think twice about citing them for vaping. Doll was fine with that — he said that consistent enforcement is an important part of making inroads against the trend.
He’s also hopeful that proposed federal regulations limiting sweet flavors of vaping liquids will help. Health advocates have argued that the vaping industry targets children, much like to cigarette industry once did.
“I don’t know a lot of guys who are trying to get off nicotine buying mango-peach-sour,” he said.