Marietta High launches pilot program to help kids kick substance use

When Marietta High School principal Leigh Colburn stepped down in 2015, she became director of the Graduate Marietta Student Success Center, which partners with social service and other community agencies to offer students academic and behavior counseling.

The goal is to improve the number of Marietta graduates, scholarship dollars earned, college acceptances, college and career transition, and student health and wellness.

Students at MHS are not graduating at the rates needed, according to Colburn, and academic counseling didn't seem to be making an impact.

"We spent two years surveying the kids and planning. We researched learning barriers. Life issues were significant," Colburn said.

She said she realized the graduation rate could be increased if certified counselors and resources were on site to help students cope with life issues like homelessness, mental health, nutrition, pregnancy, sexual abuse and more.

One major issue was substance use, Colburn said.

"Prescription drug abuse is a huge problem. It's been much worse in the last four years, and it's steadily increasing," she said.

Xanax is the number one prescription drug abused by students, Colburn said. "Ninety percent of the kids start substance use through their home medicine cabinet."

The Student Success Center, which officially opened Feb. 22, has partnered with the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse to provide certified substance abuse counselors and recovery strategies for students. The program funding comes from grants and from the Center for Social Innovation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

The first step was surveying the students, with the help of Project Amp: Amplifying Our Futures. Project Amp is a brief mentorship for teens at low to moderate risk of substance use. The mentors are young adults who are recovering drug users. Kids that screen low to moderate risk can receive a mentor with parental consent.

Colburn said suspending students who use drugs does nothing to help the child, so the program takes a different approach.

"We're not saying drug use is OK, but instead of a consequence-based approach, we teach kids recovery and coping skills. We are creating powerful connections – not isolation – to help teens," she said.

Colburn said all interaction with students is via parent permission. The goal is to partner with parents to ensure student success.

"We take a public health approach to screening for substance abuse," said Neil Campbell, executive eirector for GCSA. "We use the CRAFFT screening tool, which asks questions like, 'In the last year have you ridden in a car with someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs'?"

CRAFFT is a behavioral health screening tool recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Substance Abuse for use with teens. There is no drug screening; the behavioral screening starts a conversation with kids about use that's nonthreatening.

"We ask 'why are kids using?' There are reasons. Once we know why, we can help the kids learn coping skills," Campbell said. "If we don't punish kids for telling the truth, we can change and better lives.

"No one has to hit bottom," Campbell said. "Addiction is a brain disorder. We need to remove the stigma. A person can learn to live without being high."

The program also seeks to understand why some kids are more vulnerable than others.

According to Campbell, Marietta High is one of six schools in the nation with this pilot program. It's the first school to launch it.

Sissy Weldon, 27, is in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. She is the outreach coordinator of GCSA, where she facilitates connections and conversations among young people who are confronted with substance use challenges.

"The 'Just Say No' drug campaign hasn't worked because many kids have said 'yes.' We don't shame. We ask why and teach kids coping skills to replace using," Weldon said.

The students request recovery support because "they feel empowered to ask for help," according to Weldon.

Colburn explained that once it is known why a teen is using, certified counselors can provide individual or group counseling available at the school or at home for issues like depression, grief, self-esteem, anxiety, homelessness and more. There are also support groups, yoga classes and other resources available.

Colburn said the substance use program has been well-received by teachers, parents and students.