It’s Toolbox Tuesday! What do we do with kids who are using drugs or alcohol?

On Tuesdays here at the Daily Dawg we like to highlight issues and cases that are relevant to The Toolbox. The Toolbox is a full day training program focusing on ten “tools” designed to empower you to serve the kids with the most challenging behaviors.  One behavior that educators encounter frequently is student substance abuse.  What should we be doing when we can see that student use of drugs or alcohol is adversely affecting educational progress?

Obviously there is no one-size fits all answer to that question, but a recent case from Oakland, California provides a good illustration. I’m not going to give a detailed accounting of the facts, Suffice it to say this was a student who was doing poorly in school, and nothing the school was doing seemed to be working very well.  Tardies, unexcused absences, unfinished work, a depressed, withdrawn and dis-engaged student.   On top of all that was the use of drugs and alcohol, which the school was aware of.

When the student was in 9th grade, the district provided a behavior plan for the student.  Among other things, it called for the student to quit smoking pot.  “However,” the court noted, “again, no mental health services were provided.”  Attendance and engagement with school continued to decline.  Eventually, the parties reached a disagreement over placement for the student and the case went to a due process hearing.

From the court’s opinion, it sounds like the due process hearing focused a lot on the issue of substance abuse. An expert for the school testified that the drug use “must be treated first, outside the special education arena, before the district could assess and address mental health needs.” In other words—the parents have to get the substance abuse under control before we educators can do anything.  The hearing officer found this “unpersuasive” and indicative of an “outdated, compartmentalized approach to treatment.” Thus the hearing officer concluded that the district failed to provide FAPE by failing to assess the student’s need for mental health services, and its failure to provide them.

The court basically affirmed the hearing officer’s view. Key Quotes:

There is no dispute that the District has no legal obligation to provide substance abuse treatment to Student.

The administrative judge was persuaded that the “student’s substance abuse disorder is a function of his co-occurring mental health conditions and both must be treated for Student to be able to function in the school setting. The Court agrees with this conclusion…”

Those two quotes may appear contradictory.   Let’s unpack them a bit.  The court is saying that the district has no duty to fix the substance abuse problem. But neither should it ignore it or wait for it to be dealt with if it is adversely affecting the student in school.

What can be done with kids who abuse drugs or alcohol?  Certainly a BIP can address this.  BIPs are supposed to address behaviors that impede learning of the student or others.  Putting in the BIP that the goal is for the student to avoid drugs and alcohol is a good goal. In the Oakland case, the BIP established a goal that the student would refrain from the use of drugs. That’s a good start, but only a start.  What services will the school offer to help the student achieve that goal? What “positive behavioral interventions, supports and strategies” will the BIP provide?  Would counseling be a good service to provide?  A peer group?

This is one of many issues we discuss in the Toolbox training. If interested in a Toolbox day, just send me an email and we will find a date.