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Harm Reduction at School is a Life Saver

I will admit that it took me a bit of time to wrap my head around the idea of harm reduction at school. Eventually, I realized that I was making the same mistake that a lot people around me were making in that I was not allowing myself to imagine running a school differently than I had prior to my current assignment. In my previous schools, if a student came to school under the influence there was no question what would happen: search was conducted to ensure that he/she was not in possession of illegal substances, parents were called to inform them of a suspension and the student was sent home immediately. The thinking behind this standard three-step process is that the entire student body had to be sent "a message" that being at school under the influence would not be tolerated. Essentially, this practice is for everyone else BUT the kid who is being sent home! I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that these situations are often the exception, not the rule. The longer I reflect on what was done for the student upon re-entry, the more I have realized that I failed a lot of kids. In the insane busyness of my job, I can't say for sure that I followed up with every student I ever sent home for being under the influence to see if they needed help with accessing counselling or to even explore what was prompting their use in the first place. It's not a good excuse but the reality is that running a mainstream school is becoming more complicated and work-intensive so kids like these (and they're not always the "usual suspects") get lost in the shuffle. At the same time, we have also entered an age where there seems to be an expectation that schools have to be all things to all people - ABCs, financial support, travel experiences, so-called rites of passage, mental health services... I have often said out loud, "when did school stop being school?" I grew up in a time, not THAT long ago, where no one had these additional expectations about what to expect from school. You went to school. You did work. Your grades (mostly) reflected the effort you put forth. You didn't go to school and didn't get the work done, you failed and it was your responsibility to pick up the pieces. Times have changed and when I think about my little family of learners, I have become increasingly grateful that they have. 

So, yes. Harm reduction is probably THE most important framework that informs my role as a leader in an alternative learning community where the focus is re-engaging "at risk" or disengaged students. Harm reduction is a about identifying and implementing strategies that lessen the negative impact of fallout as a result of substance use. The strategies aim to wean the user off of the substance to the point of complete ab 

In my world, we're not just talking about substance use, which is what typically comes to mind when one hears the term "harm reduction". Think about it. So many of my kids deal with a variety of addictions and have tried to hurt themselves because of the prevalence of mental illness in their lives. In this case, my kids collectively are the rule and not the exception so sending anyone because they smoked a joint before coming school is going to have ZERO impact on the community as a whole. That doesn't mean that we don't address the issue, in fact, it's quite the opposite. Here are some of the realities that I have come to truly appreciate and understand:
  1. Students who self-medicate do so because there are bigger issues in their lives that they can't deal with alone. If you build enough of a trusting relationship with them, they will seek out the help they need to try and address their issues.
  2. If a student takes pills or smokes a joint but still comes to school, they are sending a message. They want someone to see that they are in crisis and the last thing they want is to be alone. 
  3. In a small, close knit learning environment where everyone sees and notices everything,  I think there is a hope that they will be called out on the fact that something is not quite right because they are unable or too afraid to take the steps needed to start making some changes. They want to be seen in crisis even if they can't admit that they are and if they feel like they won't be judged or pigeon-holed, students will accept the help that is offered.
  4. So many of the students in my care suffer from a series of cognitive distortions that there is no way that addressing or even recognizing that there is an issue at all is even possible.
  5. Parents who are at a loss are grateful when someone can intervene and help with the critical next steps needed towards wellness and overall safety. 

I truly believe that if mainstream schools were better equipped with resources to do what we do at my school, I think the practices would shift dramatically. 


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