Intervention with a purpose combats underage drinking

Jaalen Phillips, left, and Ransom DuBois, have trouble keeping their balance while walking a line wearing Fatal Vision Simulation Goggles, goggles used to demonstrate alcohol impairment as a prevention technique, during lunch at Lathrop High School on Wednesday, October 28, 2015.

Kevin Illingworth was first brought home by police officers when he was 7 years old. A similar circumstance would play out at his parent’s doorstep in Interior Alaska at least a dozen more times over the next several years.

For most of his childhood, Illingworth was labeled as a juvenile delinquent, a stigma he may have earned but also one he couldn’t escape — until one day when he was 14 years old, and a young lifeguard gave him the chance to do something one might not expect from a kid termed a delinquent.

The lifeguard, who worked at the community pool a young Illingworth often hung out at, invited him to training despite the fact that at 14 Illingworth was too young to be certified.

“He made me a junior lifeguard,” Illingworth said. “There’s no such thing as a junior lifeguard.”

Illingworth spent the rest of that summer at the pool — only now, instead of hanging out in the parking lot, he was working on pretend status helping the “senior” lifeguards. The next year, when Illingworth turned 15, he became a real lifeguard.

Throughout his childhood, “everybody thought ‘That kid’s going to jail’,” said Illingworth, now a professor of tribal management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Until then.”

One brief interaction, one single intervention, was enough to divert a young boy from a dangerous path to one with a greater chance for success.

Intervening in school:

For millions of schoolchildren who have used or abused alcohol, a single moment of intervention can lead either to recovery or a feedback loop of negative consequences. That’s why the point and method of intervention is so important, according to experts.

In August, professor Illingworth and Jessica Black, an assistant professor of indigenous studies at UAF, spoke together to a packed conference room at the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks. The pair discussed self-governance, community wellness and youth restorative justice at the Tanana Chiefs Conference’s 2015 Tribal Court Development Conference.

The concept of restorative justice relies on the importance of meeting the needs of perpetrators as well as victims instead of focusing primarily on punishment.

Illingworth has dedicated much of his professional career to studying youth restorative justice and positive intervention, but according to the man himself, he may never have made it there had it not been for the young lifeguard who gave him that small, singular opportunity.

According to both Black and Illingworth, intervening in the lives of young people starts with removing stigmata and labels such as “delinquent.”

“Our core purpose is not a decision or a sentence,” Black said. “It’s to build a sense of belonging … I always tell (kids) everybody makes mistakes. It’s what you choose to do afterward.”

What students do afterward can be influenced in large part by what happens immediately following a slip up with alcohol.

To see just how important the adult response can be when a student is caught with alcohol at school, for instance, one needs only to ask Anne Piek.

Piek is a certified prevention and intervention specialist at Lathrop High School. Her day consists of, among numerous other administrative duties, meeting with students who may be dealing with substance abuse issues.

If students struggling with alcohol come to Piek, or their friends refer them, they won’t be punished simply for having an alcohol problem, even though that problem is by definition illegal. As an intervention specialist, Piek’s goal is not to enforce alcohol laws but rather to give students the best chance at healthy lives.

What the student will get is a referral to one of the many treatment programs for youths in Fairbanks. If that student’s family can’t afford the assessment to enter the program, the school district will pay up to $100 toward that effort, which covers most of the cost for the majority of programs in the area.

A student who brings alcohol to school will still get in trouble, but the way the penalty is meted out has evolved over the years.

Statwide, 134 students were given out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for alcohol-related offenses during the 2014-15 school year, and 689 students received similar consequences for offenses related to illicit drugs, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

That’s hundreds of students who, under the old model, would have simply been taken out of school without any worthwhile intervention from their school.

“It used to be that when a student had a policy violation, they were just suspended for 10 days,” Piek said. “No more. Now, you’re out for five and then your second five days, if it’s your first violation, you can be with (me), in the PASS program.”

PASS stands for Positive Alternatives to School Suspension, and its purpose is to provide a more purposeful intervention for students than out-of-school suspension. The program takes place at Lathrop with Piek and includes opportunities for students to continue their school work, social skills groups, alcohol and drug assessments and the creation of a transition plan to help students work their way back into the regular school schedule.

A different but similar program, called SMART, for Students Making a Right Turn, exists for students who are repeat offenders or who have suspensions lasting longer than 10 days. That program follows a similar trajectory but takes place at the downtown office with the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s director of drug and alcohol intervention, Montean Jackson.

Both the PASS and SMART programs help students by providing an intervention with resources designed to get the students back on track — both psychologically and educationally.

“If they’re not in the building, if they don’t have access … they fall behind,” Piek said. “This is going to help them so they aren’t worse off.”

Shrinking budgets, growing demand:

In 2013, the Council of State Governments released a report on the effectiveness of school discipline, stating that students who are taken out of school via suspension are at significantly higher risk of further and worse consequences, including falling behind academically, dropping out of school altogether and coming into contact with the juvenile justice system.

This realization has caused schools across the country to re-examine suspension practices.

“Individual schools, districts, and state education systems have implemented research-based approaches to address student misbehavior that hold youth accountable, address victims’ needs, and effectively improve both student conduct and adult responses,” the report states. “These approaches also help keep students engaged in classrooms and out of courtrooms.”

In 2014, Piek contacted 394 students for support services, and students at the school committed 55 policy violations. Piek spent 69 days out of the 180-day school year working with students in the PASS program — 69 days that students would have otherwise spent at home or hanging aimlessly around town.

Intervening with students and having someone in school to whom they can talk about alcohol produces results, according to Piek and Jackson. While there is no shortage of evidence that intervention specialists can play an important role for students, their numbers are endangered.

According to Jackson, the Fairbanks school district is the only district in the state with intervention and prevention specialists in its secondary schools, but even in Fairbanks they are a rare commodity. Each secondary school in the district has a specialist except for Eielson Junior/Senior High, but budget cuts and downsizing of counseling departments have forced many of those intervention specialists to spend more and more of their time performing other duties.

Since Piek moved from Ryan Middle School to Lathrop five years ago, the number of people in the counseling department has slowly declined.

“The graduation success program used to be a full-time position. The peer mediation program used to be a part-time position. This position that I was hired for initially is a full-time position. ISI (in-school intervention) is a full-time position,” Piek said. “I am now four people.”

As each of those other positions have been cut, Piek’s responsibilities have grown. At the same time, the number of student interactions she has conducted has increased, though not every one of those interactions is indicative of a student with a drinking problem.

The immediate outlook doesn’t improve from there. As the Alaska Legislature prepares to grapple with continued income reductions from declining oil revenue, Fairbanks school district administrators say they are bracing for a multi-million-dollar budget cut in the spring of 2016.

Healing with the community

While in the Fairbanks North Star Borough most secondary students have access to intervention specialists, that’s not the case for the vast majority of teens in Alaska. That doesn’t mean, though, that positive intervention isn’t taking place.

According to Illingworth, positive interventions were happening throughout rural Alaska long before the idea of restorative justice became popular in Western culture. And perhaps nowhere is this idea more prevalent than in Alaska Native communities that use the approach of circles.

Circles are most often used when an individual in a community commits a wrong against another. In response, the elders gather, along with the perpetrator and the victim and other members of the community, and form a circle. In this way, they discuss what happened and why it happened, and they determine a proper consequence.

Unlike many forms of justice, however, the consequence isn’t a punishment unto itself but rather is a roadmap to healing — healing for the victim, healing for the community, and healing for the perpetrator.

“The biggest dynamic I see … is that it gets rid of all the rumors, gets rid of all the gossip and kind of puts everything out in front of everybody. Everyone knew everything that was happening anyway,” said Illingworth, who has participated in and witnessed both mock and real circles through his work in tribal management. “You talk about it in a way you’re not castigating or blaming, but you’re talking.”

Illingworth described one particular circle that took place in an Interior Alaska community located outside the road system after two young men in the community were caught damaging property while drinking and joyriding in a stolen vehicle.

Rather than call the Alaska State Troopers and have the boys arrested and charged with multiple offenses, the community gathered and sat the boys down in a circle.

“The city was basically saying, ‘If we can get a resolution to this at the tribal level and it’s satisfactory to us, we’d like to do that’, but if not, they’d forward charges,” Illingworth said. “There really seems to be a common connection especially in these young men getting into trouble and lack of connection between their family and their community and their culture.”

For one of the boys, who was 16, the elders told him he would have to spend his summer gathering fish with an extended relative and then delivering those fish to four elders with whom he would have to spend time and learn. The younger children in the community called on the two young men to deliver a speech for the rest of the youths on their actions.

During the circle, both the young men also admitted they wanted to learn how to drive but, having grown up in the rural community, had never been given the chance. To this, the Village Public Safety Officer offered to teach the two young men to drive and help them work toward achieving their driver’s licenses.

While the memory of the initial event is still fresh in the community, Illingworth said both young men have shown promising improvement. And though it will take years to know the impact of the process for sure, the young men and the community are taking on the effort together.

To bring this point home, Illingworth once again uses an example from his own life, when he was picked up by police the first time: “You can bet my parents lit into me. You know what they didn’t do was fly me to Fairbanks (and) put me into Fairbanks Youth Facility for one wrong night,” he said. “It’s important how we think about our kids. Are we labeling them as delinquents? They pay attention to how you label them.”

Positive intervention can take many forms. It can be intentional, like Piek’s work with students, or it can be the accidental result of a meaningful interaction, like the offer the lifeguard made to a young Kevin Illingworth.

In rural communities, where access to resources differ, intervention may take on a wholly different face from its urban counterpart. Under the surface, though, the idea is the same.

“Support, safety, health, education. How can we help?” Piek said. “Our goal is to reduce as many barriers as possible.”

The more time students can spend in front of a counselor, the better chance they have of getting the help they need.

“We are improving on the high-risk students. More are graduating than before,” Piek said. “This does work to have as much contact with students as possible.”

Originally published November 6, 2015 by Weston Morrow in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.