A woman rolls a joint while attending the Colorado 420 Rally at Civic Center Park in Denver on April 20, 2014. (Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

Marijuana use in Colorado schools still unclear, prevention on the rise

Two years after recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado, school officials still don’t know if more kids are using or bringing the drug to schools.

Educators say not much has changed since legalization, and the data tracking drug use, when available, are unlikely to have a big impact.

But schools are encouraged by grants — funded by a portion of the state’s marijuana tax revenue — that provide more health professionals in schools to support drug education and prevention programs.

“Marijuana use has been a big issue for a long time. It’s nothing new. Students have been able to find a variety of substances that aren’t legal for them for some time now,” said John Simmons, executive director of student services for Denver Public Schools. “But we have more in our bag of tricks now.”

Although Colorado began allowing retail sales of marijuana in 2014, it remains illegal for minors and prohibited in schools. Most districts haven’t made significant changes to curriculum or training, but some are relaxing how they discipline marijuana violations in schools, in some cases giving principals the flexibility to provide treatment or counseling instead of handing out suspensions.

In DPS, educators started tracking marijuana incidents last year, but they are cautious about how school officials used the new categories. According to the district’s data, there were just 138 marijuana violations out of 590 total drug incidents in the 2013-14 school year.

School districts and law enforcement agencies are changing how disciplinary incidents are reported, as required by a law passed earlier this year, but all the data aren’t available yet.

Some law enforcement officials have anecdotally reported increases in marijuana use in schools, but various surveys have pointed in different directions.

According to a recently published report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 12.6 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds said in 2013-14 they had used marijuana in the past month, up slightly from 11.2 percent in 2012-2013. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment director Dr. Larry Wolk told The Cannabist the year-over-year change in Colorado’s teen use numbers was not considered significant.

Only some school districts are providing initial numbers of marijuana incidents to date, under the new reporting, and there is no past data to know if the numbers are an increase or not.

In the Thompson Valley School District, for instance, the district has reported 55 incidents this year involving students in grades sixth through 12th. Last year, the district, which enrolls approximately 16,000 students, reported 94 incidents under a broader reporting category of all drugs.

Around the metro area, some educators believe the disaggregated data on marijuana use is not crucial.

“We definitely want to support students if they have use or abuse problems, no matter what that substance was,” said Jessica O’Muireadhaigh, director of mental health and counseling for Aurora Public Schools.

The Aurora and Thompson school districts were among recipients this year of a School Health Professional Grant. The grants are funded with a portion of the state’s marijuana tax revenue and are aimed at providing more health professionals in schools to support drug education and prevention programs.

“These funds have been really enabling some amazing innovation to happen across Colorado,” said Stephanie Faren, a nurse and health and wellness coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District, “and really promoting nursing and counseling service expansions in schools.”

A total of $4.48 million was awarded last year and earlier this year.

The largest grant in the latest round was $311,164 to Aurora Public Schools. Initially, the school district wanted the money to hire several school nurses to station at schools around the city, but a lack of applicants is prompting the district to rewrite their proposal. Now, Aurora schools will look to hire a psychologist and several counselors instead.

“The legalization made us want to look at not only our response to students that may have substance abuse issues, but also our prevention efforts,” O’Muireadhaigh said. “What we’re looking at now is a more systematic approach.”

One program they’ve started at several Aurora schools is the Prevention Awareness through Core Training, or PACT. Officials say it’s a program that teaches critical thinking about risk taking and making healthy decisions.

Many prevention efforts popular in schools recently are through health curriculums that don’t target any specific drug or behavior, but focus on helping students evaluate risks, avoid peer pressure and prioritize their health.

In Boulder, the grant money, $280,604 this year, is helping place full-time nurses at two high schools to implement a new prevention program.

Nurses, Faren said, are critical at helping identify students who have problems at home that could become reasons for using drugs. They’re also improving attendance rates by helping keep students in school, she said.

“We have seen, at Arapahoe especially, the nurse has really built some incredible relationships with students and has been a really integral part in assessing students,” Faren said.

“Nurses are one of the most trusted professionals in schools. They can get to some of the reasons why students are missing school or coming to the health room on a regular basis. Most of the time, there is something going on that is directing them to using.”

At the state level, the attorney general’s office is developing a pilot program to have school resource officers educate students about marijuana. A spokesman for the department declined to answer questions, release information or speak about the plans “until after the first of the year.”

Officials say the attention on Colorado’s marijuana legalization has attracted lots of discussion, new questions — including from students — and in some cases packaged solutions from new self-proclaimed experts.

“My fondest hope is that this attention that it’s bringing to the topic will be a positive force to decrease use,” Simmons said.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com