An eighth-grader’s essay on legalizing marijuana. (Photo: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos)

While administrators say drug use is on the rise in Cambridge schools, there is discomfort among School Committee members about zero-tolerance policies that can result in out-of-proportion student suspensions or expulsions.

“Any of the research, any of the work being done out there in the field, it’s pretty clear that that deterrent factor of ‘We’re going to punish you if you do this’ really doesn’t work with a lot of people, and it certainly doesn’t work with teenagers to change their behavior,” said Marc McGovern, vice chairman of the committee, at its Tuesday meeting. “We all hear stories of various things that seem pretty minor but because of this policy there’s also a 45-day expulsion.”

“We’re likely to be creating more problems than we are helping,” he said.

The issue arose during unanimous approval of the district’s antibullying policy, which was described as being essentially stopgap language inserted in school manuals to match a recently passed state initiative. More specific language on the issue will come as the law evolves, committee members were told, but McGovern said he was glad the law had already evolved into being about prevention and not just punishment.

It was member Richard Harding who connected the two, hoping the same attitude of prevention would be applied to kids caught with small amounts of drugs.

A health survey taken last year said Cambridge has fewer incidences of many risky behaviors, as member Patty Nolan noted, and paints a positive picture of drug use last year:

Trend data reveal decreases in the percent of students who report that they talked to their parents about alcohol or other drug issues during the past 12 months from a high of 58% in 1999 to a low of 43% in 2009.  There was also a decrease between 2003 and 2009 in the percent of students who report that they were offered, bought, or received drugs on school property in the past 12 months (2003: 7% vs. 2009: 4%).  Reports of having a problem with AOD or having a family member with an AOD problem were more stable over time.

On each chart city teens’ responses were the lowest and best since 1997 (or at least matched the lowest figures).

But stories of rising drug use among teens are accumulating this year, including from Chris Saheed, principal of the city’s high school, the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, and from other principals who spoke to Mayor David Maher during his visits throughout the district over the past month.

“Not that it is a rampant problem, but people are seeing it places where they typically have not seen it,” Maher said. “A couple of [K-8] principals had mentioned that they’d seen the problem where they hadn’t seen it in the past. We need to just keep vigilant with it and help educate kids about the right thing to do.”

Being caught with drugs can mean being thrown out of the high school, though, which has landed students in the High School Extension Program — which also has a zero-tolerance policy. McGovern told the program’s principal, Joseph R. Dolan, at a May 11 roundtable that he worried it turned away teens, who might otherwise be doing well, from their last-resort school.

Dolan was wary of backing away from zero-tolerance policies.

“Be careful right now. Because we’re seeing a resurgence in use, we’re seeing it in very serious ways that are really derailing and detracting … especially young men. To change policies would be really inadvisable,” Dolan said.

But there is always “a clinical component” for students caught with drugs, Dolan stressed, and committee member Fred Fantini pointed to the health team in place at Cambridge Rindge & Latin as an advantage in drug cessation he said other districts didn’t have.

Still, the zero-tolerance policies for drugs, weapons and even tobacco bothered committee members, with Nolan comparing the punishment to U.S. prisons “filled with people based on one-strike-and-you’re out” and Harding saying that, at the least, the student handbook has to be explicit on what happens if a teen is caught with drugs —at least as explicit as it is on tobacco.

“We do not want to give kids overly severe sentences where the crime, so to speak, does not match the punishment,”  Superintendent Jeffrey Young said. “At the same time, it’s real that the use of controlled substances is on the increase especially since decriminalization has become part of our lives.”

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