BUHS recent drug woes are part of a national trend

With incidents of opioid overdoses and unintended consumption of cannabis occurring over the past few months, the school administration is focusing on finding help for students in need

BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro Union High School continues to grapple with what has become a national concern: drugs in school, especially post-pandemic.

On Dec. 22, Interim Principal Cassie Damkoehler confirmed that on the previous day, “two, possibly three” students visited the health office at the school “complaining of some odd symptoms that came on suddenly.”

“The students were unaware of any reason they would be experiencing these sorts of things,” Damkoehler said in an immediate message to staff members and parents.

She later told The Commons there may have been other students with similar symptoms who did not report them and confirmed that two students were taken to the hospital by their parents.

Toxicology testing determined that the students had THC in their systems.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the major psychoactive component of, and one of 113 compounds recognized in, the cannabis plant. (A synthetic formulation of THC, dronabinol, is FDA-approved to manage chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and for appetite stimulation in HIV/AIDS anorexia.)

“We have not identified any laced food and therefore have not been able to determine if it had been altered or by whom,” she said. “It does not appear there was any shared food or candy between the students.”

In her message, the principal noted that “safety is always” her first priority and “being as transparent as I am able” her “close second.”

Going on to explain what happened, she noted that she found it “concerning not only from an educator's point of view, but also as a parent of teens and a member of the BUHS community.”

Damkoehler said the health office made sure the students were not at immediate risk of harm and that their parents were called.

“As many can imagine, this is frightening on a variety of levels, especially for those actually experiencing it,” she said. “From the school's perspective, we are looking into if and how someone could possibly contaminate any food or drink in the building with a possibly dangerous substance. We will make every attempt to find out this information and are open to sharing it with outside agencies, if required.”

Asking that all make efforts to “be safe with yourself and others,” Damkoehler encouraged not sharing or consuming food or drink if one is not aware of the source and it is not sealed prior to consumption.

“I know this is a common time of year for teachers to bring in baked goods and I am not frowning on this, but ask you to be aware of where they are placed and who has access to them if you are not in your space,” she wrote.

This incident comes after a Nov. 4 report, confirmed by the Brattleboro Police Department, that during the last week of September “multiple students” had overdosed at the school.

Following an investigation, a 14-year-old was arrested for sale of a regulated drug and cited to family court.

Plans and support over punishment

The day after the incident, the school held an all-student assembly to explain what had transpired. After both incidents, administrators and staff members asked students to come forward with any information without fear of repercussion or judgment.

“Most important is to just get help and have it be more of a community safety kind of thing,” said Student Assistant Program Counselor Ricky Davidson this week.

Davidson said the approach the school has undertaken “is about understanding that addiction is a medical issue and a disease,” rather than approaching it from the decades-long response of “punishing” people for substance misuse.

“That doesn't work,” said the counselor, describing the BUHS approach as, instead, asking what school officials can do to help ease the effect of these problems on a student's life in general and school work in particular.

Davidson does a lot around of work around substance “misuse and addiction issues” and helps kids come up with “a plan and support to make better decisions.” He said he believes students feel “safe and comfortable” talking with him about drug issues.

“I think they feel they can be real and I'm not somebody who's judging them,” he said.

Even before the two incidents in 2022, BUHS had set into motion several initiatives to support students around education and help with substance use.

Davidson works with Turning Point, whose representatives run a biweekly recovery group at the school specifically for students.

“There are no teen rehab facilities in Vermont specifically geared toward drug/alcohol addiction treatment,” said Damkoehler. “I actually emailed a few politicians about it around Thanksgiving break and heard nothing.”

She noted that Davidson has been working to create a modified schedule for such students so that they could have more support built into their day while attending BUHS.

“In other areas, there are things such as recovery high schools, but developing something like that takes an incredible amount of time, and there are many legalities surrounding it,” Damkoehler said.

A simple Google search reveals that schools in myriad states and even pubic libraries are experiencing similar situations.

“As a society, we're still coming out of a very long trauma situation with Covid,” Davidson said. “When you think about it that way, people deal with those feelings and thoughts in all kinds of different ways and try to find ways to cope that aren't always the best choices, and I think that's what we're seeing nationwide.”

Damkoehler said she believes it is “a combination of things contributing.”

“I think the opiate crisis really affected areas along the I-91 corridor,” she said. “In addition, we are dealing with a population of traumatized students following the pandemic, but not specifically related to Covid. Their way of life was completely altered when school was shut down, and they all lost a lot.”

“Add in the increase in both mental illness and the disease of addiction, and it's created a nationwide crisis for our schools and students,” Damkoehler continued.

“In a perfect world, we would be able to keep drugs that are prevalent in our community outside the doors of the school,” the principal said. “While we cannot do that, we are committed to supporting our students and providing all we can to help those struggling.”

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