Controversy arises over elimination of drug, alcohol counselor

by ahenderson

By Alex Ross
News Intern

SOUTH HADLEY – Two members of the Drug and Alcohol Task Force (DATF), a group comprised of students, parents, faculty, and community members that work to reduce the problem of drugs and alcohol use among students, expressed disappointment at the April 28 School Committee meeting over the decision to cut the position of a full-time drug and alcohol counselor at the high school and reduce the role at the Michael. E. Smith Middle School.
“The DATF believes the town government was innovative and forward-thinking when it recently undertook the Master Plan for South Hadley’s long term future,” said Janna Darrow-Rioux, a DATF member and mother of two who read aloud to the Committee a letter signed by herself and thirty-four other group members. “So, we were deeply troubled to learn that the School Committee’s 2009-2010 budget measures include the elimination of a dedicated Drug and Alcohol in the High School and reduces this role for the Middle School.”
The cut of the $52,170 a year position was a component of the larger budget cuts the Committee made when it approved the $18,743,096 2010 budget in March. The current Drug and Alcohol Counselor Karen Walsh-Pio will replace the Middle School guidance counselor and have a minor role regarding Drug and alcohol issues. DATF ascribe a drop in drug and alcohol use among students to Pios’ efforts to educate the community about substance abuse.
She is credited with increasing awareness and education of drug and alcohol use in both the school and broader community, helping to form DATF and other initiatives such as the creation of “Peer Leaders,” a collection of 46 high school students who serve to provide a student perspective on the issue of substance abuse among the young and serve as role models to their peers.
Rioux said that Pio has been a crucial part of this endeavor, and that going forward it’s not so much Pio but the position of someone who can invest all their energies in creating awareness and dealing with drug and alcohol use among students that is vital.
“(Karen’s position) is the glue for that task force as well as the ‘Peer Leaders.’ All those things are in peril when the drug and alcohol position goes away,” said Rioux. “They aren’t talking about having some other guidance counselor fill that position or do some of what that role has going on.”
School Committee members say they are sympathetic, but nevertheless have had to make some painful cuts in the budget.
“None of us want to eliminate this position and it’s a decision we made with some real regret,” said School Committee Chair Edward Boiselle. “But at the same time the economy being what it is, we had to make tough decisions and this is one of them. We’ve lost a lot of instruction teachers. If there is anyway we can cover this with alternative funds, it would be at the top of, I think everyone of our lists.”
John Helin, a DATF member and himself a recovering alcoholic says that future drug and alcohol related tragedies are almost certain, but that a full time drug and alcohol would help reduce the chances of such an occurrence.
“It could be a drunken driving accident or overdose,” said Helin. “Its going to happen, but if this position is retained the likeliness of it happening will be lessened.”
Rioux and Helin also stipulate that the cut may have been made because the DATF program and other efforts and prevention and education about substance abuse by teachers, school faculty, residents, and police alike have started to become a victim of their own success. Years ago drug use especially heroine was widespread in the High School. Now the number of incidents has dropped dramatically.
“Perhaps also the community and police statistics are seeing the incidents of high school reports going down and makes them think, ‘Hey, South Hadley doesn’t have a problem anymore’,” said Rioux. But the towns’ closeness in distance to Holyoke, a city fraught with easily accessible drugs, South Hadley residents can’t become complacent.
“The availability of drugs has not gone away. The ability of South Hadley kids to buy drugs has not gone away because this is a fairly well to do town,” said Rioux. “We have proximity with Holyoke where it’s easy to buy. It’s easy to buy heroine. It’s easy to buy crystal meth. So kid and adult abusers can easily cross the bridge and get what they need. But the push to have awareness going on from such a young age has really helped kids start thinking for themselves.”