The Herald Bulletin

April 22, 2010

Hundreds face drug discipline

Madison County school officials seek 'helpful intervention'

By Dave Stafford
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — Drug, alcohol and tobacco use among area public school students has led to hundreds of suspensions and expulsions in recent years.

In the past three school years for which the state has kept records, 568 students were suspended or expelled for drugs, alcohol or weapons, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. They come from city high schools and rural elementary schools.

Anderson Community Schools had 89 students suspended or expelled for alcohol, drug or weapons violations. While the number is far more than any other area system, it is  proportionally fewer incidents per 100 students than at some other local school districts.

And the number of ACS students suspended for drugs, alcohol or weapons has nearly been halved in the last few school years. In the 2005-2006 school year, 153 students were suspended or expelled for such violations.

“Generally the tack we take is a helpful intervention rather than a punitive one,” said Beth Clark, manager of schools, programs and personnel for ACS.

Students caught smoking, for instance, might be offered smoking-cessation assistance. Likewise, first offenses for alcohol or drug possession or positive screenings might result in program referrals instead of suspension or expulsion.

“Treatment is much better than saying, ‘you’re gone, you’re out of here,’” Clark said.

ACS students are subject to random drug and alcohol testing  in middle and high school if they are involved in athletics, extracurricular activities or if they drive to school. Most area school systems have policies that randomly screen most or all students in upper grade levels.

While the rate of ACS students suspended or expelled for drugs, alcohol or weapons has declined, the school system remains troubled by student expulsions and suspensions.

The Indiana Department of Education reports that in 2007-2008, ACS had the sixth- highest rate of suspensions and expulsions of 294 school systems for which statistics were available. Statistically, alcohol, drugs or weapons were the reason in only about 5 percent of cases. Discipline issues and other violations of school policies were responsible for the majority.

South Madison Community Schools, the second largest in the county, also has the second highest number of students who have been suspended or expelled for drug, alcohol or weapons. Twenty-five students were suspended or expelled for those reasons — more than in the past two years.

In an unusual step, South Madison sent home a newsletter recently that included results of a survey of students who answered questions about alcohol, tobacco and drug use. It was part of an effort to build community partnerships aimed at reducing substance abuse.

“We just are concerned that parents need to be aware that we have a problem,”  said Sandra Hudson, South Madison’s director of school improvement.

“Being higher than the state average on several categories — that’s a concern for us,” she said. “We’re above the state average in 17 of the categories out of 28.”

The survey of sixth-graders to seniors last school year asked how many had used alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or inhalants in the prior month.

On one level, Hudson said, the figures are reflective of Madison County, which has a higher rate of alcohol, tobacco and drug use than the state average, according to a 2009 County Epidemiological Profile. 

On another level, she said, the survey results also revealed patterns among South Madison students. Sixth-, seventh- and 10th-graders reported monthly use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and inhalants much higher than the state average. Seniors, meanwhile, were far below the average, and eighth-graders were at or below average on all measures.

“On our school policy, there is intervention for the first offense,” Hudson said. “The student could avoid suspension.”

Hudson said parents also should be aware that some students who abuse substances “fly under the radar. They’re pretty smart about hiding things.

“We’re also finding that prescription drugs, people will just raid the family medicine cabinet,” she said.

Local school systems also include substance abuse education in the K-12 curriculum, as required by law, ACS’s Clark said.

Contact Dave Stafford: 648-4250,