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With more drugs in schools, Roaring Fork School District weighs different strategies

Interim Superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District Anna Cole talks to parents some of the drug prevention strategies they are considering on Jan. 18 at Basalt High School.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Interim Superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District Anna Cole talks to parents some of the drug prevention strategies they are considering on Jan. 18 at Basalt High School.

Staff with the Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) have found increasing evidence of illicit drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and fentanyl in its schools.

As a result, they’re considering various strategies to combat the issue and support students struggling with substance abuse and mental health issues related to drugs and alcohol.

One of those strategies would be instituting a more comprehensive curriculum around prevention education for students and parents.

They’re also considering increasing law enforcement presence at schools with additional school resource officers (SROs) and canine drug sniffing units.

District staff are also questioning the safety of their open campuses, which allow students to come and go between class periods.

About a dozen parents gathered at Basalt High School on Thursday, Jan. 18 to discuss some of these ideas. The meeting was the first in a series of parent feedback sessions held at high schools in RFSD. (The next session takes place on Jan. 23 at Roaring Fork High School.)

Most parents encouraged the district to continue moving forward with its plans to implement prevention education in the schools, but some were concerned by the limited scope of its current programming.

Mark Raymond is a parent and former teacher.

“I'm still stunned, in shock that we don't have a K-12 substance abuse prevention program already in place,” Raymond said. “Mortified is probably a better word. The fact it’s even in play right now is just stunning.

Raymond and other parents were worried that dogs and closed campuses would not encourage trust among students and adults.

Some parents were interested in increasing the number of SROs in the district, but they wanted more information before endorsing the idea.

As an alternative, Raymond recommended partnering with local organizations whose staff can talk to kids about their firsthand experiences with addiction and fentanyl-related deaths, like Aperture of Hope and High Rockies Harm Reduction, which were both present at Thursday’s meeting.

Maggie Seldeen is the founder and executive director of High Rockies Harm Reduction and said she’s also against strategies that punish kids who are suffering from addiction or mental health issues.

“That's kind of the opposite of harm reduction,” Seldeen said. “We work closely with law enforcement and with SROs to mitigate the amount of punitive strategies, because we have seen that they are not evidence-based.”

She added that what works in Denver, Vail, and other places in Colorado doesn’t necessarily work in the Roaring Fork Valley, so solutions need to be locally focused.

Seldeen recommended stronger education, mental health support, and after-school programs as some of the strongest ways to prevent the most harmful effects of substance abuse.

School district staff gave parents tools during the meeting about how to approach conversations about drugs with kids.

Executive Director of Schools Joel Hathaway said when talking to teens about drugs, ask for their opinions, discuss reasons not to do drugs, and suggest ways to resist peer pressure.

He added that it can be even more powerful when parents are honest with their kids about their own drug use.

“Explain why, if you ever did,” Hathaway said. “Like if you were in college, talk that through. Those are the types of real experiences I think that they want to have.”

RFSD is conducting meetings with students over the next few weeks to hear their ideas and opinions on how to prevent drug use among their peers.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.