“We do have a problem with juuls compared to other schools.” — Dr. Mila Vascones-Gatski, substance abuse counselor, Yorktown High School
Important information for parent awareness:
“Yes, of course we are aware there are certain hotspots around Yorktown where kids are engaging in (illegal) activity,” said Dr. Mila Vascones-Gatski, the substance abuse counselor at Yorktown High School. The community as a whole has to be aware too. We say: ‘If you see something, say something.’”
Yorktown and other local high and middle schools share six substance abuse counselors who are working to educate parents, teachers, and youth about the drug epidemic.
Vascones-Gatski, and the other counselors in the system, spend half the week at another school. She says Yorktown is going through all the senior classes to do outreach: they want the youths to know that smoking a substance these days is different from what it was. These days, it’s so concentrated. These days, there is a national epidemic with opioids, and youths can die from overdoses. She notes that risk taking behavior is prevalent in the age group she counsels: “The kids think: I already took the risk, so why not take the bigger risk? They don’t see the consequences.”
Vascones-Gatski said the school is trying to stay ahead of the problem. Bridget Loft, Yorktown’s new principal, took the doors off the bathrooms at school because students were using bathrooms to deal or use drugs. One of the most popular and easily disguised items of drug use, is the juul, a highly concentrated nicotine vaporizer which youths use to get a buzz.
Vaping equipment, or the tiny juul which looks like a flash drive, can be refilled with marijuana, tobacco, or a substance of the student’s own invention. Youths often plug them into their school-issued laptops to charge them in class. “Anything you can put into a liquid or an oil can be used to fill the juul,” said Vascones-Gatski. And that means pretty much anything that can be inhaled or smoked, can also be vaped. “We’ve even seen photos of kids vaping (drugs) at school because these kids document everything on social media. “We do have a problem with juuls compared to other schools,” she said. Yorktown is an affluent school and juuls are expensive: they can cost $40 to $50 per case with card charger.”
Some Yorktown teachers and parents have known about this problem for a while; students have told their parents about the ease of doing juuls in the middle of a class. “You can inhale it right in the middle of the class, even with the teacher looking, because it’s so small it fits in your palm,” said one student. And why? “It’s to fight boredom, mainly.”
Teachers have long complained that the “Patriot Period” — a scheduled “down period” designed to loosen up the packed schedule and let high school students catch up on a class or seek help with their work — was not adequately supervised and allowed students to roam the halls, and sometimes the fields and woods. One teacher, who did not want to be identified, said of the Patriot Period in 2016-2017: “There is no accountability during Patriot Period. No one checks on the kids. They could be anywhere.” Loft was brought to Yorktown from Swanson Middle School this fall in part to deal with this problem head on. She says it is an ongoing process. Her primary role in this effort is to be transparent with parents, students, and teachers about the consequences of substance abuse. She has shared the Risk Behavior Survey, which monitors risky behavior in 6-12 graders locally and by school, with teachers, and then did a show and tell for them on actual vaping devices they might see in the classroom or around school. She plans to share the same information at the Nov. 13 PTA meeting.
Loft said she is having class meetings, talking about expectations for behavior, and then consequences. Those are: if a student is found vaping on school property the student will receive an out-of-school suspension, which can be expunged from the record if the student participates in the second chance program. The school wants to solve the abuse problem, not ruin the lives of students. Her tactics seem to be having an effect: several Yorktown students said consequences were rare previously and risks they might have taken last year, they wouldn’t take this year because they know the current principal is serious, and is watching.
Loft has also worked with government classes, with ninth graders about decision-making, providing them with the testimony of someone who has been in recovery for 20 years, and on early release day, she invited Kevin Shird, a convicted drug dealer who wrote a book about his experience after he was released from prison, to speak about his own bad choices. She recommended the podcast produced by APS which provides tips to parents (see box).
On Dec. 7, she will reprise a presentation Mike Krulfeld, Yorktown’s director of Student Activities, organized last year, where students with struggles with substance abuse talked about their lives, and parents shared similar stories. She reiterated Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick Murphy’s comments from the town hall meeting: parents, schools, and students are “in this together” and education, awareness, prevention — and partnership — are the keys.
As for Patriot Period, Loft said she wanted to see how Patriot Period was working before she changed it. Patriot Period is now in its second year. The driving motivation for the idea was to get extra help embedded in the school day for students who needed it. She has put together a group of staff to evaluate whether it is having any positive effect for students who need it, and just how accountable it is. Loft has not set a date for her decision on Patriot Period, but she is engaging in small tweaks while she observes. One of the things she has done is to add a layer of accountability: if students are given directives by teachers to report to them for Patriot Period, then they need to show up, and if they don’t, the school has to be aware of the no-show. Loft is also increasing the activity of student resource officers who roam in the area behind Yorktown which has been notorious for congregating (and substance abuse). Additional coverage for sports events and events like prom, will also be deployed.
Still, just two weekends after Shird made his emotional plea to the Yorktown senior class, to make good choices at this point in their lives, a “Powder Puff” football game took place at Jamestown Elementary’s playing field, where Yorktown students, among others, were engaged in alcohol and substance abuse. The game was interrupted by the police, who confiscated substance abuse items and took names.
Will Yorktown students be suspended? When asked, Loft said, “Given that the Powder Puff game was not a school-sanctioned event and did not occur on school grounds nor during school hours, Yorktown’s administrators will follow our usual procedure in following up with the students’ parents and referring the students who had been drinking at the event or using substances to our substance abuse counselor, Dr. Mila Vascones-Gatski, who will determine if referrals to Second Chance are appropriate.”