School Districts and individual schools having long since accepted the need to provide life skills development opportunities to students.  One of the most important components of these is the issue of substance misuse.  Nothing is more damaging and pervasive to a students’ ability to learn and achieve than drug and alcohol misuse.

Estimates on the number of students in any given school who are affected by substance misuse is the subject of some debate.  It should not be.  Estimates have been fairly consistent throughout the region for the past four years (see level of use chart at the end of this document).   Roughly ten percent of the student population of most secondary schools are involved in drug and alcohol use at a level that would be interpreted as “problematic” and needing intervention in some form.  Loosely translated, within the average secondary school of twelve hundred, one hundred and twenty are drug-involved at a level that is negatively impacting their social and academic development.  Within that number approximately sixty are attending school three or more days per week impaired by some drug (most commonly Marihuana).

On the following page you will see a graphic representing levels of use and drugs of choice that better illustrates these points.

While most School Districts mandate some form of drug prevention program, it is usually left up to individual schools and their administrators and staff to choose how to deliver it.

Usually it is dealt with off the corner of someone’s desk and ends up taking the form of a few classroom presentations combined with a video or handout material.  In most cases the effectiveness and content of the presentation is simply measured if the students were “bored or interested”.

At the same time, counseling staff and administrators are having to respond to significant numbers of students whose performance, attendance, and disciplinary problems are rooted in problematic drug use. Limited school resources are then further strained by the need to provide screening, assessment, counseling, and alternative education venues for these “high-risk” students.

Offering a realistic prevention and early intervention program that identifies specific objectives and goals for each of its components, will serve both schools and students better.

Such a program can be implemented in any school or district often using already existing resources.  However, offering some form of school-based outreach support (drug prevention counselors or coordinators) in addition to existing resources, greatly enhances both prevention and early intervention objectives.

The following program and its concepts is the evolution of over twenty years of working with both mainstream and at-risk youth in school settings.  It was developed after years of testing these services and objectives in a variety of school districts.  Most importantly it addresses the three components of drug prevention, education and at-risk students in an integrated way that is measurable.

Levels of Use & Drugs of Choice
Grades Eight – Twelve

The following chart represents approximate levels of use and the most common drugs of choice for students attending secondary schools.  It represents data from three school districts in the region.  These estimates are reasonably consistent (+/- 5%) with other regional and provincial surveys conducted in the last four years.

Frontline Prevention Services

A School Mandate

Prevention & Education…
Effective prevention programs are not intended to present students with the choices they should make, but rather to create opportunities to stimulate discussion and debate with accurate, credible, and current information that allows students to come to their own conclusions on the dangers vs. benefits of drug or alcohol use.

The prevention component of this program addresses three objectives:

  • To Prevent or Delay “First Use”
  • To provide information to students that is current, realistic, accurate, and age-appropriate, on drugs and alcohol in a manner that allows them to make their own healthy choices.
  • To Educate those students who are “Drug Curious” or in the early stages of “Experimenting” on understanding and recognizing problematic use.
  • Developing realistic resistance skills that are compatible with their social culture
  • To engage, and enhance the visibility of non-drug using students within the school to reinforce the fact that “most teens don’t use”

Early Intervention…

The Early Intervention component

  • To identify at the earliest opportunity those students involved in problematic drug use. (screening and assessment)
  • To provide support that is appropriate to an at-risk students’ willingness to change. (self-assessment and changes venues)
  • To recognize the need to maintain a school disciplinary standard to support safe schools, that can, and should be incorporated as a support tool for at-risk students (alternate to suspension programs)

The following pages describes the components and objectives of the Choices and Changes program:


The core of this program is to stimulate ongoing discussion on drugs, alcohol and other at-risk issues.  The educational component is intended to the three primary interest groups:

Information and discussion venues such as classroom presentations, general assemblies, and discussion groups offered to stimulate and debate drug issues.  The opportunity for students to compare the information they already have with additional information on:

  • The drugs of choice, what are they, what do they do, what are their dangers?
  • The social circumstances of teen drug use. Developing their own resistance skills.
    • Social responsibility
    • The values of peer support to promote change
    • The drug-affected student.  How to cope with an addicted person in your life.

The educational program is based on providing information that is tailored to follow a students evolution through secondary school and life-skills development.  The core topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Grade 7-8:
    • Specific information on the drugs of choice.
    • Fundamental resistance skills
  • Grade 9-10
    • Teen Drug Trends
    •  Escalating levels of use
    •  Self Assessment skills
    •  Social responsibility
  • Grade 11-12:
    •  Social Responsibility
    •  Peer Support
    • Self Assessment
  • Alternate Education (high-risk students)
    • Self Assessment
    • Making changes that work for you.
    • Peer support (using your own experiences to help others)
    • Drug-affected (coping with an addicted person in your life)

Designed to provide developmental skills in Assessment, and timely referral.  In-service training is provided in the form of semi annual workshops through school and district-wide Prod D days. Topics include,

  • The drugs of choice
  • Escalating levels of use
  • Indicators of problematic use
  • Referral process
  • Supporting self-assessment
  • Incorporating drug education into existing academic and elective curriculums

Workshops designed to help parents understand and respond effectively to issues involving teen drug use.  Facilitated through school Parents Advisory groups.  These workshops should be held twice each school year. Topics include:

  • Drug Education
  • Supporting resistance skill development
  • Identifying and responding to substance misuse
  • Family communications
  • Supporting change


The Early Intervention program is intended to identify at-risk students at the earliest opportunity and provide access to support based on a students willingness to change.  While abstinence is the ultimate goal, the program endorses a harm reduction model.

The Screening and Assessment process can be initiated through several means of referral:

  • Self referral…A student seeks help or information on their own
  • Teacher or Counselor referral… may be based on performance, attendance, or a student disclosure
  • Parent referral…parental request for assistance
  • Administrative Disciplinary referral…suspension, or police-initiated
  • Peer referral…a students friend(s) requesting help

The assessment process starts with a one-on-one meeting with the student by designated counseling or support staff using an established criteria to determine:

  • Levels of Use…based on escalating levels of use.
  • The drug(s) of choice
  • Stage of Change…willingness to acknowledge and explore change
  • Contributing circumstances…personal history, concurrent disorders
  • Available personal support resources…family, peers,

The use of a check-sheet identifying specific information ensures the assessment process is consistent and measurable.  An example of an assessment check-sheets is included in this manual.  This check-sheet provides the information to determine what follow-up action (if any) is required and what form is should take based on available resources.

Regardless of the method of referral this assessment interview is structured as an informal exchange of information and views intended to make a student comfortable making personal disclosures.  The ability to create a non-judgmental setting regardless of what information or opinions are expressed is key to an accurate assessment.  A students understanding of their right to confidentiality within professional limits and an understanding of those professional limitations is an important component to the assessment interview.

Statistically, the highest percentage (70 – 80%) of students requiring Early Intervention will be those who are beginning to experience the negative impact of problematic drug or alcohol use and are in denial.  While challenging, this is the most effective area to implement early intervention efforts.  It is also the area that is almost entirely ignored by conventional support resources because they are structured and trained to deal only with those who are “seeking” support. The end result is those students will not receive support until their substance misuse becomes so severe that they themselves see the need for help and then accept support.

The most effective form of support is to provide self-assessment venues, where a student can explore their level of substance use and identify their own measuring sticks that defines problematic use.  It is important to understand that the objective in self-assessment is not to stop using drugs, but to help a student explore honestly where they are at.

In clinical terms, it is designed for pre-contemplative students with the objective to raise them to the contemplative stage of change.  This can be very effective in a group setting where that exploration is shared.  It is also time efficient.

Regular informal contact with pre-contemplative drug-active students throughout the school year ensures that the student already enjoys a trusted relationship when they reach a point where that are ready to explore change.

There is a realistic need to establish and maintain a disciplinary standard regarding drug use and/or involvement within schools.  In most cases this comes in the form of suspension or expulsion (for continued offences).

School administrators and teaching staff struggle with the contradiction in wanting to support at-risk students, and having to “punish” students breaching rules to maintain a safe school environment.   Many feel little is gained by suspending an at-risk student and sending them “home”, usually to an unsupervised setting where they fall further behind in their school work and often escalate their drug or alcohol use.  Suspension is often seen as a “vacation” for getting caught participating in drug use at school.

An alternative to suspension program serves both the need to maintain a safe school standard with consequences, while offering an assessment and support resource for the individual student.  Suspended Students attend an assessment screening and if appropriate are then required to participate in a group self-assessment and choices program (usually as a condition for returning or remaining in school).

Based on existing resources the program can be very comprehensive where suspended students enroll for their full term of suspension (usually 3-5 days), or it can be as little as half-day session that is included within the suspension term.  Regardless of its’ duration, it serves the need to assess, and offer alternatives for change for drug-active students, while still serving the need to maintain a disciplinary standard.

This program has a separate operational manual that can be used as a template to create a viable program based on your schools existing resources.

The ability to offer in-school support is unique to each school district and sometimes to each individual school.  Regardless, there is always some support that can be offered using existing resources.  This structured assessment process is designed to identify those that can be supported with modest resources and those who will require more advanced support usually found in community-based agencies specializing in addiction support services.

The fact is, there are always individual school staff who are already offering support for individual students at some level.  In many cases these conversations are taking place in isolation and a student can be “talking” to two or three different people about the same issues without anyone being aware of other support taking place.  Identifying, acknowledging, and incorporating these individuals into this program helps ensure coordinated, consistent responses for at-risk students.  It is important to understand that this is not additional responsibility that is being added to their workload.   This is about coordinating the work they are probably already doing.

Key Staff that should be included in the “Changes” support group should include:

  • School Administrators responsible for discipline (Vice-Principals)
  • Counseling Staff
  • Youth Workers
  • Alternate Ed teachers and support staff
  • Special Needs teachers aides
  • CAPP or Personal Planning Teachers

The Choices & Changes program offers in its educational component an opportunity for students- particularly senior students- to take a more active role in prevention and early intervention.  This is easily accomplished by expanding the role and mandate of existing student peer-counselors to include students who have demonstrated an awareness, and interest in drug abuse issues.

A simple training guide for peer counselors is included in this manual and offers educational objectives that can be accomplished through monthly or bi-monthly informal group training sessions.

The Choices & Changes Program
Copyright 2007
Any use in whole or in part without permission is prohibited
For information contact FrontLine Prevention Services


Support Services, and Resources for Schools

For those School Districts, or Individual schools that may want additional support in assessing their program needs, or assistance in implementing this program, Front Line can offer a variety of support services that include:

  • Program Overview for Senior Administrators, School Boards, and Trustees including a district-wide or individual school needs assessment.
  • Training workshops for School Administrators and Staff including:
    • Creating and delivering Drug and Alcohol Educational programs
    • Screening and Assessment
    • Delivering Alternate-to-Suspension Programs
    • Parent Workshops on understanding and responding to Teen Drug Trends
    • Community-based educational workshops or seminars on Teen Drug Trends

As well Front Line can offer qualified school-based Drug and Alcohol Prevention coordinators to support or augment your existing programs.  These services include:

  • Student Drug Education and Prevention presentations, including classroom or general assembly venues
  • Pro D Teachers and staff workshops
  • PAC and parent drug education presentations
  • Facilitating Alternate to Suspension and other self-assessment groups
  • Screening, Assessment, and Brief Counseling services

*Note:  Only available in some locations… Contact us for more information

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