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By Laurie Dunklee

We know that drug use among students is an issue in our state, especially where marijuana dispensaries are close to schools,” says Micah Munro, a student services coordinator with Jefferson County Public Schools.

Munro was hired in 2017 under a grant from the Colorado State Board of Education aimed at drug abuse prevention efforts. The $9 million grant from state recreational marijuana revenues was divided among school districts and Jefferson County was awarded $825,164 per year for three years, beginning with the 2017-2018 school year. Jeffco schools used the money to hire nine new school health professionals: six elementary school social-emotional learning specialists and three full-time nurses to serve middle- and high schools.

Fifteen schools in Wheat Ridge, Edgewater and Lakewood are implementing programs to help students and families make good decisions about marijuana use.

“In the elementary schools we’re all about upstream prevention,” said Munro, a licensed clinical social worker with a master’s degree in education. “In middle schools and high schools, we add drug intervention services.”

The individual schools were chosen based on their proximity and access to marijuana dispensaries, as well as their commitment to drug prevention programs. Edgewater Elementary School, at W. 24th Avenue and Depew Street, is the only elementary school to have its own dedicated social-emotional learning specialist (SEL). Edgewater has seven marijuana dispensaries within its 0.7-square-mile area, according to coloradopotshops.com. Nine other elementary schools in Wheat Ridge, Edgewater and Lakewood share one SEL per every two schools.

SEL specialists work with teachers from once a week to three days per week, as well as working with students. Social-emotional learning is the process of learning how to understand and manage emotions, as well as set positive goals, show empathy for others, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

“It’s about self-awareness and self-management, which is critical to upstream drug-use prevention. It’s about learning the skills necessary to have a productive life,” said Munro.

The framework for SEL educators includes both classroom instruction and practical tools. Problem-solving is a big component.

“Research shows that good decisions require good skills in advocating for yourself,” Munro said. “In the elementary schools it’s mostly classroom learning. Starting in middle school we include practicing scenarios because drugs are in their world. We’re not just providing a lesson but practicing how to use our skills throughout the day.”

Denver Public Schools’ substance use prevention program (SUP) serves 28 schools including Lake Middle School in the Sloan’s Lake neighborhood. The social-emotional learning component teaches students protective life skills like coping, resilience, and dealing with stress and conflict.

“We practice skills in relationships and stressful situations; then the kids report back on how it went,” says Michel Holien, LCSW, supervisor of the program. “‘Just say no’ does not work. So we are not preachy, we just educate about the impact of substances and teach skills. What works best are the protective factors and relationships with safe adults.”

SUP also encourages alternatives to engaging in unhealthy behavior, like exercise, talking to a friend or reading a book. A calendar of free activities is on the website, denverrap.org.

“We increase their chances of making better choices, instead of self-medicating their stress,” said Holien.

Five Jeffco middle- and high schools – Lakewood and Wheat Ridge high schools, Jefferson Junior High/High School and Everitt Middle School – share the services of three full-time nurses. Creighton Middle School, though not under the grant, has an SEL who has been trained in drug intervention and prevention services. 

The nurses offer SEL support as well as working on school culture and climate.

“The nurses support after-school activities and facilitate academic support,” said Munro. “Problems can arise when kids sit around after school, so we help them get involved in something that makes them feel good about themselves and interacting with their peers.”

The nurses also help with intervention if a student reports that she or he is struggling with substance abuse, or if a student is referred or caught possessing drugs.

“The nurse can work with the student on setting goals and connecting with community resources,” Munro said.

If a student is ticketed for possession of drugs, the court may require that they attend a treatment program.

“The school nurse can help them, and their family, navigate the system. In some cases, if they take a class, the charge can come off their record, which is important to their future,” said Munro.

One Jeffco schools nurse, who prefers her name not be used, shared her experience.

“I had two students that were so nervous about going to court that they asked me to go with them for support. I was able to help them and their parents through the process and alleviate some anxiety. Just the fact that they wanted me there says a lot about the trust-building that is happening.”

Munro, a mother of two, said legalized marijuana is a big challenge for drug deterrence programs.

“My son asked me, ‘How can marijuana be bad if it’s legal?’ The answer for youths is marijuana’s effects on the developing brain.

“People don’t know that the effects of marijuana on youths is different than with adults,” she continued. “Studies show that marijuana use in the developing brain can affect learning and memory and can cause mental illness and psychosis. Marijuana strains are stronger than in the past. The part of the brain that’s looking for pleasure develops before the part that makes good decisions. The more we get this information out to parents, the better chance of them teaming with us.

“Also we help students and parents understand the law itself, like around driving. And we encourage students to think about the impacts on their future lives – about what happens to their chances for college, sports and employment. We help them build a skill set for responsible decision-making.”

How will the schools know the program is working?

“We’re collecting data on expulsions, academic achievement and other measures; our goal is use the data to drive future practices,” said Munro.

Munro hopes to see the program expand.

“There needs to be a comprehensive K-12 substance abuse program. I’d like to train all teachers to know what happens in a child’s brain, to recognize what a child might look like if they are using, and what they might be using.

“If I had a magic wand, I’d see to it that no one falls through the cracks.”