ConVal High School’s Story: Becoming Trauma-Informed for Substance Abuse Prevention

by | Jun 20, 2017 | ACES, SCHOOLS

As a student assistance counselor, I regularly receive flashy emails from various organizations promoting materials for drug-free schools.  Secretly I roll my eyes and strike the trash icon.  “Drug free schools – ha, right?!”

It may sound cynical or jaded that I don’t believe in drug-free high schools. It’s not that. The truth is I don’t believe a drug-free high school exists. This isn’t from a lack of effort or concern. As a product of the “Just Say No” era, schools have worked for decades to educate students about the dangers of substances. Somehow this has not translated into a reduction in substance abuse. Why is that?

In Fall 2015, I gathered with a group of concerned educators, including the principal at ConVal High School in Petersborough, NH.  Dr. Gerry Scarano and I expressed concern in what we perceived as an increase in student reported substance misuse.  More than ever, students were talking about this new form of marijuana they were using, with dire consequence — Dabs. I also had many students reporting improper use of prescription pills. I was worried. Was the problem getting worse or was I just hearing more about it?  Were we on the verge of a heroin crisis at our high school?

From that initial meeting, several more conversations followed and in May 2015, I volunteered to lead a grassroots effort to address the substance misuse problem at ConVal High School. Voila, the ConVal Substance Abuse Task Force was born. We initially comprised members from the Student Support Team, which included counselors, a social worker, a school psychologist, and several administrators. In those early meetings, we took time to formulate how we were and what we were. Because I have “process-driven” facilitation ingrained in my way of being, I led the group in setting norms, exercises to increase psychological safety, careful discussions about uncomfortable topics (e.g. “how has addiction affected your life?”), learning about change models and network theory, defining a mission statement and terms such as substance misuse, abuse, and addiction. I wanted us to have a strong sense of solidarity and purpose before embarking on addressing a delicate and complex problem. There was whining; copious amounts of whining.  “When are we going to DO SOMETHING?”  The group was primed for meaningful strategic planning.

In the Summer 2015, we developed our first strategic plan for 2015-2016 with three goals:  raise awareness, educate, and revise the substance abuse policy in the district. We accomplished these things with gusto. Steve Bartsch, dean of students at ConVal, and I facilitated focus groups and gathered input on our policy from students, staff, parents. We met with the school board several times. We partnered with Lee Ann Clark and her task force (“Be The Change”) at Monadnock Community Hospital and co-sponsored numerous events. Many of the events involved documentaries and stories of addicts in recovery. Events were well attended. We hosted events at ConVal High School, such as “High and Seek,” “Chucky’s Fight,” and a student production known as “Project Crash.” All events were well received. All events made us feel good, but something was still missing. I felt we were not really getting to the root of anything.

In June 2016, I attended the 27th Annual International Trauma Conference in Boston, MA. Those few days changed my life. It was an epic “A-HA”, paradigm-shifting, world-view altering life experience. Listening to Dr. Peter Levine and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk speak about nervous system dysregulation and its relationship to mental health, physical health and substance use sounded an alarm so loud in me I had to bring their findings to the work of our task force.

At our Summer 2016 strategic planning retreat, I read an excerpt of Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score. It resonated with everyone. There was a resounding, “We agree; we must address childhood trauma if we want to affect change with substance abuse and addiction.”  Our second year strategic plan emerged: To raise awareness about the relationship between ACES (adverse childhood experiences) and addiction, review inter- and intra-district communication protocols, pilot trauma-informed intervention strategies across grade levels.

To date, we are a task force comprising 40 stakeholders from across the district and community. We have facilitated eight community ACES presentations, educating more than 100 community members. We have facilitated seven school ACES presentations, educating more than 250 staff members. We are producing a student-created documentary about the relationship between ACES and substance misuse.

As one of our student participants wrote, “We are going straight to the issue. This is going to be raw, real, and impactful. Kids do not just show up to school drunk or high just to be cool. There is a deeper entrenched suffering occurring in that student’s mind and life. And, we are going to talk about that.”

We have even developed our own trauma-informed strategies based on our increased knowledge about trauma and strategies to address it. At ConVal High School, we are in our second cohort of a trauma-informed intervention for substance-abusing teens called, “core regulation.” Unlike pre-contemplative and motivational interviewing approaches to substance misuse, “core regulation” is a 12-week group designed to increase self awareness about inner states of regulation and dysregulation. Students track their nervous system activation with various conversations and exercises. They then reflect on how they feel after engaging in a regulating practice such as mindfulness, meditation, qi gong, and cooking. Shawn King, fellow school counselor, and I developed the curriculum from several resources. It has been a huge success!

The pilot groups were boys, and they often remark that they love group because it also helps them thwart their “inner meathead.” The “inner meathead” is a ConVal-coined phrase to describe the male phenomenon that is alive and well when most boys gather. It often involves teasing, joking, minimizing, and dismissing emotional/psychological matters of importance. It’s a genuine threat to authentic connection. This phenomenon is so prevalent our students intend to address it in their ACEs documentary.

ConVal is still at the beginning of defining its trauma-informed approach to substance abuse prevention. But as the facilitator, I no longer ask myself the question, “Why is that?” I no longer feel we are missing something. For the first time in my life, I know we are accomplishing the real work of prevention. I can’t believe seeing the world through the lens of “childhood trauma” could shed the light on our future direction. Imagine that?

This first appeared in the Spring NHSCA (New Hampshire School Counselor Association) newsletter.

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