by Carlos Sundermann-Villavicencio • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 1997

If violence, racism, discipline problems, and drug and alcohol abuse are rampant at school and in the community then chances are very likely that no matter how high we set our standards, we are going to continue to hurt kids. When children, youth and teachers do not feel safe and when disruptions interrupt teaching and learning, school improvement is impossible. A fundamental prerequisite for school reform begins with a comprehensive prevention program. That is the foundation for establishing a school climate conducive to teaching and learning.

After five years as a high school principal in a small school in western Montana, the staff and I had fooled ourselves into thinking that we were doing all we could to turn around the drug and alcohol problem at our school. Our instincts told us that we needed to talk to the kids about the dangers of drugs. We did plenty of that, and the kids weren’t interested. We provided many activities on weekends when kids complained that they had “nothing to do” and some kids still continued to use drugs and alcohol. We set high standards, developed zero tolerance statements and policies, held drug-free school rallies, had red ribbon week and “just say no” campaigns, and the kids we wanted to reach just laughed at us. We started suspending kids left and right and inadvertently provided more opportunities for them to use alcohol and drugs and more opportunities for them to get into trouble. Did we ever do anything right?

I remember that a group of kids developed interesting video “infomercials” for a health class that were shared with the whole student body. One in particular stands out in my mind. A young man is shown smoking a joint and drinking as he is holding a photograph of his family. The camera zooms to the photograph while a voice says, “This is your family.” The young man ignites the photograph with his lighter, and the voice continues, “This is your family on drugs.” As the photo burns, the concluding statement is, “Any questions?” I remember being mesmerized by the reaction of many of our students. One student snickered nervously, but most were touched, at least momentarily. In the eyes of a 15-year-old girl who was pregnant, I detected tears.

That came at the end of a long, hard year. I went away from that experience with a glimmer of hope that maybe we could actually begin to reach some of our students the following year.

At about the start of my fifth year as principal, in fact, three days before the staff was to return to school for orientation, I got a call from the school board chairman telling me that one of our students had been killed in an accident. We would have to postpone our teacher orientation day, and I would ask the teachers to attend “Benny’s” funeral. The death of one of our students always came as a shock even though during every single one of the four previous school years we had come to know the reality of losing our students to a highway accident, a drowning, a suicide (one of our girls jumped off a bridge), a shooting, a stabbing. Funerals for older people I can accept, but I reflected that, in this community, the people who were dying were relatively young people, in their teens, their 20s, in their 30s. There was acceptance among the staff that the community and consequently the school had a serious drug abuse problem. There was also extreme frustration because our efforts seemed somehow fruitless.

Benny was an identical twin at our school. He was always more morose and sullen than his brother. He rarely smiled. In March, a teacher caught him smoking pot in the restroom, and I tried talking to him about why he was using. All he would say is, “You just don’t understand.” I sent him home with a referral for counseling and a request for a parent conference. He never came back to school, and his parents never came in to talk to me. We sent our home school liaison to look for them, but she could never locate the parents. His brother continued to come to school because he wanted to graduate. I tried to talk to him about Benny, but all he could say was that things at home were “pretty messed up.” His brother said that Benny had given up on school because he just didn’t see the point of any of it.

In the two days before the funeral I learned the details of Benny’s death. Several boys, all students at our school, had been playing a game of Russian roulette. All of the boys had been drinking heavily. According to several accounts, the boys thought that the small.22 caliber handgun was not loaded. One of the boys who had been with Benny told me sometime after the funeral that when the gun went off, Benny crumpled to the floor and pleaded, “Someone please help me.” The denial surrounding Benny’s death in that community was almost universal. It had been an accident. The boys had just been messing around. Yeah, there had been a box of ammunition nearby, but they thought they were just blanks.

So we gathered for this young man’s funeral. Some parts of this experience will always be etched in my memory. I remember seeing Benny in his coffin and the mirror image of his brother crying inconsolably above the coffin. I also remember noticing the bright clear blue of that late summer day, the snow capped peaks high above the valley floor, and a touch of Montana autumn in the air as Benny’s coffin was lowered into the ground with his friends, relatives, community and teachers gathered around him. I remember thinking, “This has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Why would anyone want to leave it all behind?” A soaring bald eagle screamed above our community, breaking the silence. I wondered what was in the minds of members of that community.

In the minds of many of his teachers that day was the thought, “What could I have done to make a difference?” I know because many of us shared these thoughts with each other when we talked about developing a program at school that would make sure that none of our kids would ever fall between the cracks again. It is always a shame that sometimes a tragedy has to happen before we are moved to action. And so we tried building on that event over the next year. I wish I could say that we succeeded in building an effective prevention program, but the reality is that we were unable to break through the denial in the community and to some degree among some of our staff. Many of us left in total frustration by the end of that year.

In retrospect, I did learn many lessons. I left that school and for the next seven years I worked in prevention and became very well acquainted with effective prevention methods. Knowing what I know now and what I knew then, how could we have done a better job at that school, not just for Benny but for all of the students?

First of all we would have to break through the denial around the issues of drug abuse and violence. Students, teachers, administration, school board, parents and community members would have to overcome the paralyzing denial that kept us from acting in a unified way. Teachers would need to know not only how to identify students with drug abuse problems, but also what to do about it as individuals. They would have to learn to play the role of friend, counselor, guardian. All the adults in the system would have to know what to say when questions come up about drugs, alcohol, tobacco and violence. Adults would need to model behavior, they would quit smoking, the alcoholic teacher would be told to either get help or to get out of education. Each teacher would learn to recognize all of the teachable moments that come our way as teachers.

Rather than a punitive system, there would be a system of support. At school there would need to be a system for referrals to counseling, treatment if necessary, support groups for youth most in need, social skills development, honest, clear-cut information rather than scare tactics, and clear, consistent no-use messages. There would be community partnerships with other agencies to provide seamless services for the students and their families.

We would expect that parents would need to be supportive of the school’s expectations, and we would actively solicit their participation. It would mean that the police would have to break up the Friday night keggers and arrest the adults who provided the youths with the alcohol or the drugs. It would mean that parents would be indignant if any adult or parent supplied minors with beer at a private party. It would mean that the star basketball players who had been caught drinking the weekend before the big game would not be allowed to play even if it meant losing the game. It would mean that a student returning from treatment could not return to a home where others were abusing drugs and alcohol until there was an intervention with the entire family.

We would recognize that prevention would target the entire school system, the entire community and the total environment. We would recognize that prevention is a kindergarten through 12th grade program. We would recognize that prevention is not just about eliminating drugs and alcohol. It’s about preventing AIDS, suicide, teen pregnancy, dropouts, violence, gangs and vandalism. It’s about building the self-esteem, pride, respect, and dignity of all children and youth.

It would mean developing a nurturing environment where there would be mutual respect for one another, where culture and language differences were regarded as strengths rather than as deficits. Racism and sexism would not be tolerated. The staff would confront poor and unacceptable behavior each and every time it occurred. And the school board would be able to confront a difficult discipline problem even if it involved the doctor’s kid, or the judges’ son or the lawyer’s daughter.

Creating safe, disciplined drug-free school environments is a cornerstone of everything else that is done to help children and youth to succeed academically. An effective prevention program is one component of a schoolwide effort that must exist if we are to improve teaching and learning. Good prevention is about helping children to become resilient people despite the adversity that they face in their lives. If we can create children with high, positive expectations, children who have a sense of competence, who feel that they can control their environment, who have a sense of future and sense of purpose, children who can play well, work well, cooperate with one another and respect other people, other cultures and other languages, and if we can create children and youth who can learn independently, collectively, cooperatively, who can think critically, and reflectively, we will create adults who will be happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults. The way we do that is through inclusion, by developing a school climate that is nurturing, caring, academically rigorous, disciplined and demanding. We must be willing to face head-on all the problems that plague our children and that defeat our youth at school and in our communities. To do anything less is to enable defeat and failure.

Carlos Sundermann-Villavicencio is the director of the Northwest Regional Assistance Center (Region X) at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon.

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]