Village Schools

The Yellow Springs High School Student Assistance Team provides a network of student services to Yellow Springs youth. From left to right are Sarah Lowe, Kevin O’Brien, Vickie Hitchcock and Robin Fast.

Team offers aid, support to students

In response to concerns that Yellow Springs district officials have reached for controversial measures such as drug dogs in lieu of networked student support services, a group of dedicated personnel would like the community to know that there are eyes and ears on the ground to help troubled students in the Yellow Springs schools.

Collectively known as the Student Assistance Team (SAT), this group of teachers, counselors, and administrators has a mission to reach out with non-punitive support measures at the first sign that a student might need intervention.

Whether working to ensure that a student has lunch every day, following up on a teacher or parent referral that a student seems depressed, or conferencing on test-taking modifications to improve performance, the SAT seeks to address the social, academic and emotional issues faced by Yellow Springs youth.

Formed 20 years ago, the SAT serves about 30 students annually, out of a total middle school/high school enrollment of 360. Roughly 12 of these are substance abuse cases, including tobacco.

The SAT consists of health and physical education teachers Kevin O’Brien and Sarah Lowe, guidance counselor Robin Fast, and technology assistant and Vice Principal Vickie Hitchcock. The SAT was designed to take a holistic approach to fostering student success by creating channels of communication between parents, teachers, and administrators.

The team’s approach to supporting students is multivariate, like slices of a pie, according to O’Brien, who said team members want and need a variety of tools at their disposal to deal with issues which are, themselves, multivariate and different.

There are difficulties at both ends of their work, team members say. On the public side, the community knows very little about the variety of support services offered because, regardless of the type of outreach, team members operate under strict rules of confidentiality.

On the other side, they face a student body that is reticent about revealing information about fellow students, especially when the trouble is substance abuse.

“That’s the barrier we face, this unwritten code of silence, of snitching,” Fast said. “Peer pressure is our greatest Achilles heel.”

The SAT developed a model that emphasizes non-punitive approaches to student issues, including those that involve substances. The student handbook describes the policy on smoking or having cigarettes on campus as having a first offense out-of-school suspension period of up to 10 days. By working with the SAT, a student can agree to attend smoking cessation classes and reduce the suspension to one day.

When the infraction involves other substances, the team’s response is a matter of degree and circumstance. Hitchcock recalls only a couple of instances over a 10-year period when authorities have been called in to handle a student infraction, and notes that, especially for first offenses, the school authorities may be able to develop a program that avoids turning the case over to the police department.

O’Brien agrees that not all substance issues, including a first offense with marijuana, require a call to authorities, but adds that the school does have to abide by federal and state laws. The SAT offers a self-referral option that guarantees no punitive measures will be taken against the student, O’Brien said, but that the student will be connected to the resources he/she needs.

Students pretty much know who is using, Lowe added, referring to the student body. The SAT rallied funds to bring in Curt Gillespie, a licensed chemical counselor who runs a program called Voltron. In past years the program seemed very successful, but, after a break due to limited funds and poor student attendance at the program’s weekly lunch sessions, the program was discontinued this year.

It is frustrating when the SAT provides the “faculty-free” adults to approach for help that students have requested, but the students don’t use those resources when they’re available, Lowe said.

“If there are students that have concerns, we encourage them to find any adult they feel comfortable talking to,” said Hitchcock. “We are very open to any solution that anyone can think of to add to our plate,” she said, encouraging the community to offer the team ideas to create more opportunities for students in the district.

Substance abuse interventions are only one part of what the SAT offers students, with two other areas being academic and social intervention services.

An academic intervention might involve connecting a student who is struggling in a particular subject area with a tutor. If a student has anxiety over testing or is performing below ability for another reason, the SAT is able to initiate modifications to increase performance, team members said. While these academic interventions are considered regular education measures, some students will be referred for testing for special education, resulting in Individual Education Plans that prescribe further measures to boost learning and performance.

Social intervention can include moderating meetings between students and family members when family communications have escalated into a stressful situation, ensuring each student has appropriate winter clothing, or initiating conversation with a student who is showing signs of depression, team members said.

While these services are largely referral based, coming from parents, teachers, and anonymous sources, the SAT also provides educational opportunities for the entire student body including special presentations, whole school assemblies, and multi-age mentoring programs.

A new program launched in 2007 is called SADA, Students Against Drugs and Alcohol. The program dispatches high school students who have pledged to be drug and alcohol free to act as role models for middle school students. Considered a success since its launch, the program teaches leadership and refusal skills and creates a social network of support for non-using students.

The SAT also maintains a roster of households that have taken the “Safe Homes Pledge,” an initiative to align parents and community members together who agree not to allow unsupervised parties or the under-aged consumption of alcohol in the home.

Parents and community members are encouraged to contact Vickie Hitchcock at 767-7224 for more information.

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