BY JOHN POHL
(Webster Groves, Feb. 10, 2011) Since 1996, Webster University has led a campaign through a program called UNITE to educate middle school and high school students who have gotten into trouble with drugs or alcohol.
Students are taught the effects of drug and alcohol abuse on the human body in an intense four-week session, which also assess the severity of their problems.
“I am happy to say we were one of the first universities in the state of Missouri to offer a substance abuse education prevention program,” said Patrick Stack, director of Counseling and Life Development. “We offer this for kids in grades seven through twelve who get busted for drugs or alcohol at school.”
All of the students have completed the program with scores of 80 percent or better. Out of 39 participants last year, only three had to repeat the program for committing a second violation.
Many of the participants of UNITE come from the Webster Groves School District, which offers the program to their students.
“If we witness a student involved in drugs or alcohol, we’ll ask them to empty their pockets and we’ll ask them direct questions,” said Gayle Hennessey, student services director for Webster Groves School District.
Students suspensions may vary depending on whether they decide to enter UNITE or a similar substance abuse program.
“Although students are not required to enter the program, if they show a willingness to participate they may be able to get back in school quicker,” Hennessy said.“Police are typically not called, but parents are called right away and a hearing is set,” said Cathy Vespereny, community relations director at Webster Groves School District.
UNITE, which costs $100 to attend, consists of four strictly educational sessions that last an hour and 15 minutes each. At least one parent is required to participate with the student throughout the entire process.
“The first session is a self-assessment by the student of how severe of a problem there is,” Stack said. “We want them to realize first what harm they are doing to themselves. We have them ask themselves, ‘What would have to happen to yourself in your life to say ‘Oh my goodness I think I have a drug problem?’ ”
Stack said there are four categories of self-assessment: curiosity, when a student has not heard of drugs or not used yet, experimental, when students try it to see what it is like, regular usage, where a pattern of use has been developed, and problem youth stage, when the student uses drugs or alcohol and it causes some sort of problem.
“We negotiate with the student what the parents will be told,” Stack said. “If it is life-threatening we tell the parents. Otherwise, we honor the students and educators privacy.”
Stack said students learn in a one-on–one setting in which cooperation and participation are vital to the success of the program. They are shown the effect substance abuse has on their families, jobs, friends, school and most importantly, their brain.
“What’s important to realize is that drugs and alcohol abuse can emotionally stunt your growth,” Stack said. “Your brain will not be emotionally parallel with your age as you get older. Drugs or alcohol has more of influence on you than yourself. An abuser will need it just to function.”
The program is not a counseling service, but rather a straight forward approach to drug prevention that includes teaching kids about alcohol poisoning, mixing drugs and drug abuse.
“We want these kids to know the effects of narcotics, depressants, stimulus, hallucinations, cannabis and inhalants,” Stack said. “Kids don’t know what happens, let’s say, if you mix drinking and NoDoz. The brain gets confused and it could trigger a heart problem.”
The program gives students a comprehensive wellness assessment during the last session that includes intellectual, emotional, social, physical, spiritual, occupation and vocational well being.
Stack, who represents Webster University on the board of UNITE, said he understands schools are looking for students who can be in a position to do their studies and follow the law.
“Our drug prevention program educates these students and helps get them off of drugs and alcohol,” Stack said.