Whether a Metro student is caught with a small hand-rolled joint or enough marijuana to distribute to an entire classroom, the district’s drug policy, like those of all school systems in the state, has long been uncompromising. Penalties for drugs are stiff. Students, regardless of the severity of their drug-related transgression, substance amount or personal track record of violations, are subject to one-year out-of-school suspensions.
That’s the consequence of Tennessee’s zero-tolerance policy, which calls for “certain, swift and reasoned punishment” for student violators of major offenses: violent acts, bringing weapons to school and the possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia. The state law allow for a “spectrum of disciplinary measures,” the harshest being one calendar-year expulsions.
Though suspension lengths are occasionally modified, those who receive the district’s full wrath are pulled out of 180 school days. A student found with an illegal substance this week could be diverted to one of the district’s three alternative learning centers before returning to his or her zoned school in mid-February of next year.
But Metro school officials are starting to recognize something obvious: When students are taken out of the classroom, they don’t learn as much. When they aren’t learning, the likelihood they don’t graduate increases. And when students don’t exit high school with a diploma, schools don’t fulfill their core function.
Thus, through an initiative led by Director of Schools Jesse Register, Metro is about to alter — arguably loosen — its penalty for first-time drug offenders, offering on a case-by-case basis an opportunity for intervention and education instead of a draconian suspension sentence.
“Zero tolerance is a state law, and that won’t change,” Register told The City Paper. “What we’re trying to do is look at appropriate other measures that we can take that help young people and give us alternatives to an automatic yearlong suspension.”
The plan is still in its infancy. Only in recent days has Metro been putting the finishing touches on the new pilot initiative, dubbed the Drug Prevention and Education Diversion Program. Through a partnership with Birmingham-based Bradford Health Services, which has a branch in Nashville, the district will soon offer professional drug counseling and awareness as an option for first-time violators to decrease lengths of suspensions. Taking advantage of the new program, still not officially announced, will be entirely dependent on the discretion of a student’s family.
“If parents choose to do that, it could change the length of time of a suspension,” Register said. “It’s pretty hard to think about 12 calendar months for first-time offenders, for young children. You hate to just have an alternative-school placement, or something like that, and nothing that’s educational, that helps them get past whatever problem they have. It will be highly individual. It will be based on what the offense is.”
Officials are stressing that the drug-policy tweak — an emphasis on counseling and tutoring — isn’t out of sympathy or forgiveness. Rather, they say minimizing the extent of suspensions to educate and graduate kids is their priority. They’re also highlighting whom the program is not for: students with a pattern of drug-related offenses.
“If we’ve got somebody selling drugs, I don’t have much patience with that,” Register said.
Metro’s new drug diversion program hits on touchy subjects: drugs and school safety. During a recent Metro Council Education Committee meeting, Register didn’t realize he was introducing it to the public via Metro3.
“We’re not on TV right now,” Register told committee members. “If we had a reporter that was going to put this on TV, I wouldn’t say it, but I’m going to say it now: We have a great concern about the use or misuse of drugs among youth in our community. If you’re caught possessing an illegal substance, the state law requires that we put them out for a year. So, if you get caught with a bag of marijuana, you’re out of school for a year — if you’re 14 years old or 15 years old.”
Under state law, only superintendents in school districts have the authority to change suspension lengths. The new drug prevention alternative is very much a Register-led plan.
“I can modify zero tolerance,” Register said. “I can change the lengths of suspension. Nobody else in the district can do that. Sometimes, under extenuating circumstances, you don’t just want to automatically put a child out for 12 calendar months. You need alternatives there.”
The prevention plan is part of a larger effort to address suspensions in Metro schools, a dilemma that has historically plagued African-American males. According to the district’s 2010 state education department report card, a disturbing 18.7 percent of the district’s black students were suspended last year. Comparatively, 7.6 percent of white students were suspended. The new initiative is supposed to build on the school’s district’s Twilight program, implemented last year, which allows students who commit offenses to replace suspension days with time in an after-school classroom. Offered at nine middle and 12 high schools, the district credits its Twilight schools with preventing 1,535 suspensions last year.
Drug offenses only count for a sliver of the district’s suspensions, which according to the state’s report card totaled 9,700 last school year. Metro school officials say they dealt with 278 drug cases the previous academic year and 150 during the most recent semester.
Ralph Thompson, the district’s assista nt superintendent of student services who will oversee the drug prevention alternative, said the program would target first-time drug offenders found either under the influence of in possession of illegal substances. He said the program should be rolled out “any day now.”
Students would be required to attend a total of two four-hour group sessions (offered over the course of six Saturdays) with health care professionals from Bradford Health Services. Thompson said the counseling classes would likely be held at the district’s central offices on Bransford Avenue, though that’s not certain.
“The child is going to remain on suspension until it’s completed,” Thompson said. “But what we will in effect do — you may be out of school 15, 20 or 25 days as opposed to a whole 180 or 90 days. So we can get you back in school a whole lot faster.”
Selena Yarbrough, administrator at Bradford Health Services who helped draft the drug-counseling curriculum, said the program is designed is teach at-risk youth to stop using illegal substances. She said “master-level counselors,” including licensed psychiatrists, would facilitate the sessions. “This is an education-only program,” she said.
Students in the program navigate 10 stages, she said. They include lessons on the progression of addiction; the effects of substance abuse on the body; the role that family plays; decision-making; peer pressure; coping with emotions; healthy leisure skills; and stress management. Yarbrough said the group topics would rotate to expose all students to each of the areas. When students conclude the coursework, she said they would leave with a certificate of completion.
“If somebody continues to have high-risk behavior, in partnership with the school, hopefully, what we’re able to do is identify the students who have had experimental use to people who have developed a pattern of use that may warrant some type of treatment,” Yarbrough said. “If we’re able to determine that somebody does actually need services, then we’re able to provide them with whatever level of care is appropriate.”
Yarbrough is optimistic the initiative will return students to the classroom and reduce the duration of their suspensions.
“Though we support zero tolerance in schools, what we’re able to do is isolate students who have been a one-time offender,” she said. “You may have a student who passed off some prescription pills to her friend and not really understand the danger they’ve done because of a lack of education.
“There’s clearly a difference between somebody who makes a mistake and somebody that has a pattern of bad behavior,” Yarbrough said. “We’re hoping to be able to educate within the school district, and educate parents and the student, the difference in those two classes of individuals.”