District Convenes Committee to Address Berkeley High Campus Drug, Alcohol Use

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday June 25, 2009 - 07:40:00 PM

In a push to reduce drug and alcohol use by Berkeley’s public school students, the Berkeley Unified School District will collaborate with the City of Berkeley government to form a committee by September to address the issue. 

In March the Berkeley Board of Education received a report from district officials on the 2008 California Healthy Kids Survey, which showed that Berkeley public school students used drugs and alcohol at twice the national average. 

It said that, compared with state and national figures, twice as many Berkeley ninth-graders (31 percent) and 11th-graders (54 percent) reported that they had been drunk on alcohol or high on other drugs while on school property, and twice as many students had smoked marijuana in the preceding 30 days.      

The report said that cigarette, drug and alcohol use among students increased from fifth to 11th grades, and that there was higher consumption of alcohol—except at the fifth-grade level—than in the rest of the state and nation. 

The California Healthy Kids Survey focuses on substance abuse, violence and safety and meets the requirements of the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. 

This was the first time survey results were presented to the school board. The report included data about drug and alcohol use by students in the Berkeley Unified School District, the county and the state, based on information provided by students in the fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th grades. 

 School board directors and district Superintendent Bill Huyett expressed concern at the March board meeting, with some attributing the spike in substance use to Berkeley’s relatively high tolerance of drug culture. 

Huyett warned that intoxicated students lag behind in school and directed district officials to work with the city to create a plan to address alcohol, tobacco and drug use in the city. 

A report presented at the June 17 School Board meeting by Javier Mendieta, the district’s manager of student welfare and attendance, said the 2008 data “reflected a significant increase in the use of marijuana and alcohol by BUSD students from the previous survey” completed in the spring of 2006. 

Mendieta’s report said that district Director of Student Services Felton Owens was inviting representatives from the district, the City of Berkeley’s Health and Human Services staff, and Berkeley Unified parents and teachers to develop a plan for services to address alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse to meet the needs of students, staff and the community. 

Mendieta acknowledged that, although the city has already done a lot of work in this area, the school district didn’t have a chance to weigh in on it. As a result, “the city plan has not been widely implemented in the schools,” Mendieta said, adding that it would provide a good foundation for the committee. 

The new plan, according to Mendieta’s report, would identify evaluation methods taking into account measures left out in the California Healthy Kids Survey. It would review district and school polices on drug and alcohol use and recommend updates if necessary. 

It would also review disciplinary action and intervention and would develop a curriculum aligned with the Health Framework for California Public Schools, including a recommendation for an approved drug-education curriculum for secondary schools. 

Peer and support programs such as Upfront: A Reality Drug Education and Support Program for High Schools, currently running as a pilot at B-Tech, would also be considered. 

Other goals include broadening parent and community outreach, counseling and mental health services in collaboration with the city. 

Mendieta’s report includes suggestions for who should be included on the committee: district Director of Student Services Felton Owens; Berkeley’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Coordinator Barbara White; Angela Gallegos-Castillo, assistant to the city manager; Berkeley High Student Health Center Director Lisa Sterner and representatives, parents and students from B-Tech, Berkeley High and the three middle schools. 

School Board Director John Selawsky praised Mendieta’s report, calling it “comprehensive” and “well written.” 

“We’d like to have one or two board liaisons, and I would like to volunteer for it,” Selawsky said.  

Selawsky and Shirley Issel also asked Mendieta to include the Alcohol Policy Network and Students for a Safer Southside in the committee in some way. 

Board members agreed with Mendieta’s suggestion in the report that the new plan be geared toward increasing student participation in the California Healthy Kids Survey. 

Dr. Rebecca Cheung, the district’s director of evaluation and assessment, informed the school board during the March presentation that the survey was considered to be most accurate when it had a 60 percent or higher participation rate. 

Berkeley Unified only met that target in ninth grade (68 percent), followed by the 11th grade (52 percent), seventh grade (48 percent) and fifth grade (43 percent). 

Berkeley Unified spokesperson Mark Coplan said that although some people took the California Healthy Kids Survey with a grain of salt because it was self-reported, Superintendent Huyett had a lot of faith in it. 

“It’s pretty solid information,” Coplan said. “There might be a small percentage of kids who are saying one thing and meaning something else, but overall the survey is highly respected.”