Newark (N.J.) Public Schools, an urban district of more than 42,000 students, has employed SACs (student assistance coordinators) since the early 1970s to provide a safe, healthy and drugfree environment for its students. SACs are specially certified district employees who work with pre-K through grade 12 students for prevention of and intervention regarding high-risk behaviors associated with substance abuse, unprotected sex and pregnancy. But on the drug front, coordinators were sometimes left in the dark, and felt they could better help students if they were more educated on the extent to which illicit drugs were present in school. In the fall of 2006 the district began using DrugWipe in its high schools, a hand-held stick that tests for the presence of illegal drugs to the nanogram level.
Since their inception as part of the district's Student Assistance Program, funded by a Title IV Safe and Drug-Free Schools grant, SACs have had their work cut out for them. They schedule orientations on drug prevention, respond to referrals, hold "working lunches" with students, and communicate with parents to keep them informed. But Willie Freeman, director of security for the district, says that prior to bringing in DrugWipe "educators might have been talking to a group of students about marijuana, but they might not have been really talking to them."
"We would educate on one thing, then find out we have something totally different. It's been like a wake-up call," says student assistance coordinator Craig H. Norton. "The DrugWipe has really brought us up to speed on what's going on in the community and the environment in which we're operating."
How It Works
Made by the company Global Detection & Reporting, DrugWipe is a small plastic stick that, when wiped over any surface or patch of human skin, will indicate if there is a residue-visible or not-from cocaine, cannabis, opiates, amphetamines or methamphetamines. A combination of security guards and school police officers at the district use the device primarily on locker handles but are also looking to extend testing to computer keyboards and athletic equipment. Freeman says the tool can conceivably be used on anything that students touch. "Anything you ingest comes out in your pores," he says.
Instead of being used as a device to single out individual students and involve local law enforcement, the DrugWipe is used as an instructional tool currently in six of the district's 13 high schools to inform SACs and other school leaders on student drug trends. Staff use that knowledge to tailor the curriculum and programs to address actual problems the schools are confronted with, rather than just assuming that, say, upper-classmen use illegal drugs more frequently than freshmen. (In some schools the reverse is true.)
Acting on the Information
District staff say that the new information is allowing them to navigate the children on a healthier path in life and deliver a greater quality of service in the form of group counseling, workshops, and one-on-one talks geared specifically toward the drugs most prevalent in the school for different grade levels.
"Drugs are a reality that we live with," says Lelia Dinkins, principal of Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, the first school where the DrugWipe was piloted. "But with the new program in place, it allows us to help our children and it also allows the parents to help their children."
The tool lets students know that the teachers in their high schools are not just aware of their possible drug use but are there to help them, which is a positive impact in itself, adds Dinkins.
Continual testing with the DrugWipe allows school leaders to ascertain if the education has helped to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the building, and Freeman says they expect future tests to reveal an overall decrease in illegal drugs.
"The information is key," Dinkins says. "And what you do with the knowledge is where the journey starts."
Zach Miners is news editor.