Oak Park-River Forest High School

I am the chairwoman of the volunteer High School Action Committee, which formed last spring following the release of the 2010 Illinois Youth Survey. It revealed alcohol and other drug use by students at Oak Park and River Forest High School is double that of use by other high school students locally, statewide and nationally. Alcohol and other drug use by our high school students reaches across the socioeconomic spectrum and negatively affects the entire community.

The committee’s mission is to help educate students, parents and the community on the dangers of alcohol and other drug use by our high school students, to focus on prevention efforts and to work toward a drug-free environment at OPRF. The committee seeks to improve the learning environment at OPRF and optimize student safety. By researching best practices used in other schools to help deter alcohol and drug use by students, the committee will make recommendations for practices that would benefit OPRF and the community.

There have been misquotes aired and published in various media outlets regarding the committee. In an effort to dispel this misinformation, I offer the following top 10 misperceptions surrounding the committee:

10. The committee wants to see kids expelled.

Quite to the contrary, the committee wants to help students stay in school. We support the implementation of prevention programs to help kids say “no” to alcohol and other drugs and “yes” to furthering their education.

9. The committee advocates “zero tolerance,” meaning, “One mistake and the student is off the team or punished.”

For the committee, “zero tolerance” simply means we want drugs and alcohol out of our school. The committee wants to improve the learning environment at OPRF, to ensure the highest possible student achievement and to promote measures to ensure school safety.

8. “It’s just a little weed.”

False. Marijuana today is much stronger than it was a couple of decades ago. Some reports estimate it’s five to 25 times stronger, which means it’s a completely different drug, and it’s a dangerous one. Smoking marijuana leads to changes in the brain that are like those caused by heroin, cocaine or alcohol. The adolescent brain doesn’t reach full development until the mid to late 20s, and it is especially vulnerable to the effects of marijuana and other drugs. Research shows marijuana and other drug use by adolescents can interfere with brain development, causing problems with thinking and learning, and have a detrimental impact on its long-term function. According to a recent National Institutes of Health report, one in six adolescents who smoke marijuana become addicted.

7. If some form of drug testing is implemented at OPRF, students can be tested without parental consent.

False. Parental consent is required for any drug testing of a minor. The Supreme Court ruling has been upheld on mandatory random drug testing for high school students involved in athletics and extracurricular activities. These activities are considered privileges. When schools utilize this testing, students and parents/guardians must sign a written consent prior to students’ participation in these activities. In addition or independently, some schools institute a voluntary random testing program. In this program, parents/guardians consent to placing their child in the random testing pool. It is a tool for students to use to help them say “no” to alcohol and other drugs, citing their participation in the testing pool.

6. If OPRF brings in police or safety dogs, lockdowns would take three hours out of the school day.

Some schools that use police or safety dogs go into “soft lockdown” and examine only one or two areas at a time. A lockdown can take as little as 20 minutes.

5. We couldn’t possibly close the OPRF campus.

False. OPRF has been a closed campus in the past.

4. Isn’t OPRF already doing what other area high schools are doing to prevent alcohol and other drug use by students and promote a positive and safe learning environment?

OPRF has much higher alcohol and other drug problems reported with its student population. OPRF does not have a Student Assistance Program, does not have a closed campus, does not utilize police or safety dogs, and does not use drug testing. Most high schools in Illinois have a Student Assistance Program, in which prevention is a key focus. Of the 14 high schools in the West Suburban Conference, 11 have closed campuses. Unlike OPRF, the other two schools operate their respective open campuses with tight restrictions. The majority of the conference schools use police or safety dogs. At least 11 public high schools in Illinois and more than 400 across the country use some form of drug testing.

3. OPRF is already spending thousands of dollars on drug and alcohol prevention.

False. Funding for prevention efforts has declined from $5,000 seven years ago to $1,300 this year. Contrast that figure with the tens of thousands of dollars spent annually on off-campus tuition and transportation for students with alcohol and other drug problems.

2. These efforts will have no measurable impact on grades or our achievement gap.

Nonsense. For example, St Patrick’s School, a private parochial school in Chicago, instituted a mandatory drug testing program several years ago. Shortly following its implementation, St. Patrick’s saw its collective GPA rise to its highest level in 15 years.

1. Only 5 to 10 percent of OPRF students do drugs. So what’s the problem?

This statistic is inaccurate and it was repeated in other media outlets. According to the Illinois Youth Survey, OPRF student alcohol and other drug usage is twice that of students locally, statewide and nationally. For example, in the survey, 41 percent of OPRF seniors and 28 percent of sophomores reported using marijuana in the previous 30 days. About 59 percent of seniors and 41 percent of sophomores reported drinking alcohol in the previous 30 days.

The more you learn about the alcohol and drug issues at OPRF, the more the need for proactive, preventative change becomes apparent.

Kelly O’Connor is an Oak Park resident and chairwoman of the High School Action Committee.

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