APRIL 7, 1997

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Pro-active program is helping deal with pervasive drug problem

Williams & Smith-Vela

Officer Ken Williams of the King County Police (left) and NSJS counselor Nancy Smith-Vela.
Photo by Deborah Stone.

drug intervention by Deborah Stone
"Over 70% of children between the ages of 12-15 have tried some form of alcohol or drug substance," stated Officer Ken Williams of the King County Police. This grim statistic is representative of junior high students in the Northshore area and strongly indicates a pervasive problem in our community. It is misleading to believe that because we are on the Eastside, we don't share the same problems as the city of Seattle.
   According to Officer Williams, a ten-year veteran of the force, "Kids have money to spend on drugs here, and the accessibility is high. It's easy to get any narcotic here, and you can find kids dealing everywhere: at malls, outside restaurants, in parking lots. There's been a steady increase over the past several years, particularly with juveniles. They have the mentality that because they're young, nothing much will be done to them if caught."
   Four years ago, Nancy Smith-Vela came from Seattle after working with youth services for 11 years to become a counselor at Northshore Junior High School. She had become somewhat disillusioned with the problems she had seen in the city and needed a change. She thought the Eastside would be different and without the same problems she worked with in Seattle. Within her first year, she realized there was no difference at all.
   In her second year, she approached Eric Barnum, Director of Student Services for Northshore, with an idea for an intervention program at NSJH, which would include the services of a drug and alcohol counselor on site once a week. Barnum found funding to contract the services of Doreen O'Connor from Lakeside Mylum Recovery Center, and the program began.
   Smith-Vela and O'Connor co-facilitate support groups of "at risk" students, including those in the experimental stages of substance use to those in recovery. O'Connor also does assessments and testing, meets with parents, and helps find treatment for those in need. An intervention team at NSJH was formed which includes the school nurse, Vela-Smith and the other two counselors, several teachers, and O'Connor. They meet to brainstorm ideas on "at risk" students and find ways to work with them within the system.
   Students are referred to the intervention team by teachers, other students, parents or themselves. Many teachers have been trained to understand the psychology of addiction and know the signs of drug use so they can be aware of what's going on in their classes.
   "The teachers here are very supportive of our work and want to be a part of it," says Smith-Vela. "They see their role as an advocate for the student."
   With the active support of the school's PTA, parents are also becoming more involved, and evening workshops have been held to inform and educate parents about the problems and issues, as well as available resources. At these workshops, a panel of youths in recovery speak about their experiences to emphasize the realities of the problems that face young people today. At a recent meeting, over 300 parents attended, an indication that the community is beginning to open their eyes to accepting the truth of the situation.
   "Community denial has been the biggest hurdle in all of this," says Smith-Vela. "Many parents have naive perceptions and don't want to believe that the problem is here in full force. They don't have knowledge of what their kids are doing, and they're operating off of what a stereotypical drug addicted person acts like. If their kid does not fit this picture, they believe all is well. They need to know that this is a problem that affects all types of kids from honor students to jocks."
   The program at NSJH has broken ground, and the benefits of the intervention are beginning to show. According to Smith-Vela, a climate of trust and acceptance has been created where the problem is discussed openly without social stigma. "We emphasize that students are not judged as good or bad, and parents are not judged as good or bad. We focus on healthy and not-healthy behaviors and the ability to make positive choices. We hold kids accountable for themselves and their friends," Smith-Vela said.
   Officer Williams has also seen the initial resistance to this program begin to fade, and an attitude of acceptance take its place. He plays a dual role in the community. He is a School Resource Officer at NSJH two days a week and a community police officer for the Kingsgate area the rest of the time. He is in his third year at the school and describes his position as a resource for the school, parents and students and a community connection.
   Most importantly, Williams strives to develop a rapport with the kids and establish solid relationships with them. He spends his time talking to them in the lunchroom, classrooms, outside, or on the basketball court, and feels he is helping to dissipate the stigma that cops are bad.
   "I think I'm bridging the gap, and also I'm changing perceptions. The kids know they can come to me with any problem and I've seen them," Officer Williams said. "There's a mutual respect between us, and they have warmed up to me now." He works closely with the counselors at the school, and both Smith-Vela and Williams have seen indicators that they are making headway with the program. They have seen students begin to take responsibility for their actions and admit to wrongdoing, accept people for their differences, communicate honestly, and show more confidence in themselves.
   "Kids are starting to tell us who's distributing drugs, something they'd never have shared before," says Smith-Vela. "What they also tell us confirms the fact that drug abuse is not a problem isolated to NSJH. It's at every school."
   The Northshore District is the first on the Eastside to implement such a pro-active program, and Officer Williams feels that this will be the "wave of the future" with other districts coming on board soon. The hope is for Northshore to eventually hire its own alcohol and drug counselors instead of contracting out the work, and to get elementary schools involved because the problem is coming up from the feeder schools.
   "We see seventh graders who are already savvy about drugs by the time they get here," states Smith-Vela. "We have such phenomenal academic programs in this district, but we must all recognize that inner city problems are here, and we can't wait until it's a community crisis. Let's accept the problem and view it as a disease that requires treatment and not shunning. The community must be pro-active in its approach and work on prevention, not just intervention. After all, children are our future."