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Troy schools eye reducing substance abuse

| July 20, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Troy public schools will use a state grant to expand their mentoring program in the fall and beef up after-school activities for youngsters. Both steps are intended to help reduce substance abuse by students.

Meanwhile, another grant will send three Lincoln County police representatives to an Arizona conference on underage drinking. A Libby substance abuse counselor said that's important because police in the county have been lax in writing minor-in-possession citations.

Troy's mentoring program has paired high school juniors and seniors with seventh-graders in the past. Superintendent Brady Selle said the older children help younger ones make the transition from elementary school to the larger high school building.

"It gives you comfort through the summer knowing you'll have someone be there," he said. "We're real excited about the opportunity to expand (mentoring) to the younger kids."

Beginning in September, Troy students in grades nine through 12 will begin mentoring 20 to 25 elementary students recommended by teachers. Those chosen for the program won't necessarily be at-risk, but children who need an attachment, Selle said.

The older kids might help with homework, or they'll just be there on a weekly basis to talk about whatever interests the younger ones. Each month, they will do a special activity together such as bowling or roller-skating.

"Just naturally the elementary kids look up to the high school kids," Selle said.

One-third of the $9,000 Montana Department of Corrections grant will be used for costs of bowling or whatever the mentors and younger students decide to do. Another third of the money will go toward after-school activities.

Ralph Stever of Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency in Libby said the activities could be as simple as keeping the elementary school computer lab open after school. The students will brainstorm and make recommendations about what they want, he said.

Stever noted that weekdays from 4-6 p.m. is a critical time as far as substance abuse is concerned. Filling that time slot with positive activities is the goal.

The final one-third of grant money will be used to implement what Stever called "best practice programs" in the schools. Those are strategies statistically proven to cut down on anti-social behavior, bullying, and related problems, he said.

Stever mentioned possibly establishing a Frisbee golf course in Troy. He's also talked to local residents about installing a climbing wall at Morrison Elementary School, as well as a tile bench. The latter project calls for students to make tiles reflecting some positive aspect of life in Troy, then covering a bench with them as a statement against substance abuse.

Brian Clark of Fun Beverages in Kalispell provided a $2,000 grant to send the Libby and Troy police chiefs and a Eureka police officer to a conference in Arizona next month. The conference emphasizes the importance of combating alcohol abuse by youths, Stever said.

"Part of the problem is that law enforcement is not that engaged with

underage drinking in Lincoln County," Stever said. "My goal is to get law enforcement on the same wave length as prevention."

The substance abuse counselor believes Lincoln County needs to change what he called "community norms" about underage drinking. Too often, he said, adults nod and wink about teen drinking rather than seeing it as a pathway to problems such as risky sexual behavior, poor school performance, theft, vandalism, fighting and general "stupidness."

"I think it ties in directly to community norms," Stever said. "Times have changed and a variety of illegal substances are just five minutes away."

Nationally, Montana is in the top 3 percent of states as far as substance and alcohol abuse, he said. Stever estimates that 20 to 30 percent of local youths "are dabbling with pharmaceuticals."

Eighty-one charges of minor in possession were filed in Lincoln County during 2004, Stever said, adding that he believes many more incidents are not followed up.

"It's kind of a community norm to say 'You go home and be good,'" he said of Lincoln County juveniles who are found with alcohol. "You have to have consequences. That's where it has to start."

Lack of money is no reason to avoid seeking counseling for alcohol or drug problems, he noted. Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency offers services on a sliding financial scale, charging as little as $5 per session.

Stever acknowledges that substance abuse problems won't go away easily.

"It appears overwhelming," he said, "but it really isn't. We have high hopes."

Selle, Troy school superintendent, agrees. He emphasized the community has many outstanding youngsters, too, and those are the ones who will be encouraged to take part in the expanded mentoring program.

"We have kids who have assets," Selle said. "We have such a wonderful wide range of kids."