School substance abuse counselors go beyond “Just Say No”

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WATERTOWN — Like countless other public schools across the nation, those in the north country include drug abuse prevention both in their health curricula and in their student services departments. But how they help students make healthy lifestyle choices has changed in the past decade.

The PIVOT program has been formally working with school districts in the area since 1980, according to Executive Director William W. Bowman.

“We started out with project CHARLIE,” Mr. Bowman said, “that was the precursor to the student assistance and prevention counseling we provide now.”

CHARLIE, or Chemical Abuse Resolution Lies In Education, was a companion to Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, and was also popular in schools in the 1980s and ’90s.

Mr. Bowman said that one of PIVOT’s programs has been in every Jefferson County school district at some point over the past 38 years. PIVOT substance abuse counselors are currently employed in seven school districts in the county.

As health care organizations like PIVOT move toward a value-based payment system, they must now focus on the outcomes of their treatment rather than purely the number of students served. Value based payment is meant to hold health care providers accountable for both quality and cost of care; it was adopted by New York State in 2015.

“Our curricula are based in substance abuse prevention, but also centered on emotional health,” Mr. Bowman said. The curricula and services PIVOT offer to school districts must be thoroughly researched and approved by the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, and are marketed to schools “based on what they need, and what our funding requires.”

The emotional health component of substance abuse prevention starts as early as kindergarten.

Young students at the LaFargeville Central School District are being taught the emotional skills by a PIVOT counselor.

“There’s a lot of focus on behavioral health overall,” said Superintendent Travis W. Hoover. “I think some of the most important work the counselor does involves going into classrooms.”

Mr. Hoover’s district has had a counselor from PIVOT for five years; they were initially hired using funds from a grant, but the position is now funded through the state’s Community Schools initiative and the United Way, with the district also contributing.

“The counselor has taught our younger students a lot of coping skills,” Mr. Hoover said. “Resilience is also key; we want them to know how important it is to try.”

Older students at LaFargeville learn about making positive choices, a concept echoing what PIVOT had taught when its counselors first came to the school in the late 1990s.

PIVOT’s services were also just coming to the Indian River Central School District around that time, as well. Those positions were also lost when certain grants ended in the 2000s. The district was able to restore the services in 2016 with a Department of Defense grant.

“That grant was all about student services,” said Assistant Superintendent Mary Anne Dobmeier, “and we found that substance abuse came up significantly in our student needs survey.”

And schools are now expected to address their students’ social and emotional needs as well.

“We’ve gotten better at seeing issues the students have to deal without outside of school that they then bring in,” said Mrs. Dobmeier, who has worked at the district for over 20 years.

“The community’s needs are often reflected in the students,” said Pupil Personnel Services Supervisor Tamara T. Metz. “And while the specific drugs themselves may have changed, there’s always been a stable need for substance abuse prevention education.”

Recognizing the role social and emotional health plays in connection with substance abuse has allowed PIVOT counselors to expand their discussions.

“Recently our counselors spoke in a high school health class about self-harm,” said Ms. Metz, “because its often linked to substance abuse, in the student or even in a friend or parent.”

While in-house school counselors are able to provide help to troubled students as well, Ms. Metz explained that substance abuse counselors like those PIVOT provides “come in with a different lens and background. It allows us to all share our experiences and knowledge.”

And at smaller districts like LaFargeville, an in-house school counselor may wear many different hats.

“Our guidance department does everything from career or college prep to scheduling,” said Superintendent Hoover, “so they simply don’t have the availability to meet the students’ needs.”

PIVOT counselors at schools can also make external referrals if students need long-term behavioral treatment. Counselors currently work in the Alexandria, Carthage, General Brown, Indian River, LaFargeville, Lyme and Watertown City school districts.

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