By Tessa Raebeck
Initiatives to combat substance abuse among Sag Harbor teenagers will reach all the way down to kindergarteners next year, district officials confirmed Tuesday.
The evening’s board of education meeting included an update on the district’s drug and alcohol abuse prevention program by Marian Cassata, a prevention consultant and the former director of Pupil Personnel Services at Pierson Middle-High School.
Ms. Cassata, along with her husband Bob Schneider, the former principal of Pierson, is active in the Sag Harbor Coalition, a group of community members dedicated to reducing the use of alcohol and other drugs among local kids. She and Katherine Mitchell of East End Counseling LLC were hired as consultants to address drug and alcohol prevention in the district last spring.
The increased attention to drug and alcohol abuse prevention comes following data from several surveys of local youth that found the rates of alcohol and drug use among Sag Harbor students are higher than average rates in Suffolk County.
Sag Harbor’s drug and alcohol abuse prevention program has traditionally started in middle school, when children are believed to be at the beginning stages of coming into contact with substances. The focus on younger grades has been on other relevant health topics, such as eating well and resisting peer pressure. But an effort to address what some say is an alarming number of Pierson High School students abusing alcohol and other drugs have caused the district to change its program.
Next year, the drug prevention program in the district will involve children as young as 5.
“Next year is the full implementation of that bottom strand of the pyramid,” Ms. Cassata said Tuesday.
Following recommendations made by the consultant to the board in August, the district decided to switch from its existing drug and alcohol program to HealthSmart, “a comprehensive K-12 health education program,” according to the company website.
For students in kindergarten through the fourth grade, the HealthSmart program includes four units: Personal and Family Health, Safety and Injury Prevention, Nutrition and Physical Activity, and Tobacco and Alcohol Prevention, introducing substance abuse prevention to Sag Harbor kids at a much younger age than the current program.
A source familiar with the current program who wished to remain anonymous expressed concern that students will be introduced to adult topics like drugs at an earlier age and said the district needs to educate parents prior to its implementation on what their children will be exposed to under the new program.
Ms. Cassata and Ms. Mitchell, as well as members of the Sag Harbor Coalition, believe an all-inclusive program is the most effective means of delivering a consistent and effective health curriculum that will prevent kids from abusing substances.
Ms. Casata said Tuesday staff development for the HealthSmart curriculum at the elementary school level will begin in June and the program will be “up and ready to launch fully in September.”
Ms. Casata told the board in August that the materials are estimated to cost in excess of $13,000 at $400 a kit and that she had already worked to secure grant money to fund the program.
According to Business Administrator John O’Keefe, drug and alcohol prevention services for the current school year, 2013-14, were budgeted at $25,000. The district has budgeted $20,000 for next year, 2014-15, slightly less because more funds were required to get the program up and running this year, Mr. O’Keefe said. Those funds cover payments to Ms. Cassata and Ms. Mitchell, as well as payment for guest speakers and “things like that,” he said.
Also at Tuesday’s board meeting, Mr. O’Keefe announced Moody’s Investors Service has upgraded the Sag Harbor School District from a credit rating of A1 to Aa3, the first upgrade in the district’s history.
“This significant upgrade is based upon the district’s strong, successful financial management practices over the past several years, which have resulted in both improved and satisfactory reserve levels,” the district said in a press release.
As a result of this upgrade, the district anticipates saving approximately $330,000 in interest for the work proposed in the recently approved $9 million capital projects bond, as well as approximately $15,000 in bond insurance premiums. The district also plans to save additional money during the annual tax anticipation note borrowing.
“Really, that’s work for children, because that kind of money can be freed up for programs and for important things,” school board member David Diskin said Tuesday.