Hawaii receives $13 million to fight rampant drug problem in schools

Neighbor island students as young as middle school have the state’s highest rates of drug offenses on campus. It’s a problem many say is much worse than the numbers reveal.

Some public school teachers in those communities say they feel helpless against the tide of a drug culture rooted at home. Now, there’s some big money coming to schools with the biggest problems.

Always Investigating recently revealed the schools with the most violence reported on campus, and now we’re looking at the drug numbers:

  • Waianae High: 60
  • Keaau High: 57
  • Baldwin High: 56
  • Kapolei High: 54
  • Waipahu High: 43

These are just the overall counts. When you look per capita busts for possession, use or distribution as percent of student population, Olomana, the school for at-risk and incarcerated kids, has the most.

Child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Suzanne Gelb calls the numbers sad and scary.

“A lot of kids are in a lot of emotional pain and they’re feeling very alone. Their parents are either working two jobs, they don’t have time,” Gelb said. “They self-medicate. They will find ways to relieve the pressure if they’re not taught health ways.”

Teachers say the problem is bigger than the numbers show.

One teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, “It represents closer to one-fourth of what is actually occurring on campus. It’s almost an expectation that everybody you know smokes weed. Ice is continuing to grow in popularity, along with heroin.”

Law enforcement is trying to do its part. County police conduct Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs at schools across the state.

But teachers say some of them are seeing their message hit a wall too.

“It is too far outside their life experience. The idea of getting drunk isn’t normal. Hey, smoking weed all the time isn’t a normal thing. So the kids just couldn’t buy into his message, and so he stopped coming,” the teacher said.

“The teachers are feeling this sort of helplessness, and for me, that’s the biggest issue. That’s why school climate transformation is so important that we reach out to our teachers to make them believe that we are making a difference,” said Chad Farias, Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area superintendent.

It’s not just drug abuse they’re tackling. There’s drug dealing with varying consequences.

The teacher told Always Investigating, “A kid got busted with it, with a sizable quantity of marijuana with him, and (the vice principal) took him into the office, asked him questions, asked him if he was selling it, and he said, ‘No, I’m not selling it.’ And (the vice principal) said, ‘Okay, what are you doing with it?’ And the kid said, ‘I’m trading it.’ ‘Well, what are you trading it for?’ He says, ‘Oh, I’m trading it for money.’ ‘Oh, well, alright.’ So the VP said well, that doesn’t count as a drug sale, so they didn’t report it as a drug sale.”

Department-level supervisors say that’s not okay.

Farias says law enforcement should be involved “every time there’s drugs, for sure… We’re not doing the kids any favors. We need to address this head-on. We’re changing the behaviors of kids.”

Changing behavior is the goal of two grants worth $13 million. The money targets three at-risk areas of the state: Kau-Keaau-Pahoa on Hawaii Island, Oahu’s Nanakuli-Waianae complex, and the Honolulu North-Central schools. One grant covers positive school climate transformation for all kids. The other zones in on substance abuse and mental health first aid.

The Hawaii Island complex alone is recruiting for three behavior specialists, and they’ll work both at school and even try to reach the homes of some students.

“We’re going to have to look at multiple ways of getting to the child and having the child understand their decision, what it means to their health, to their future opportunities,” Farias said.

Farias says the department has had challenges finding qualified social work and behavioral health specialists for the jobs, but wants the experts in place by the start of next semester. He also hopes the program rolls out to more than just the three target complexes.

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