Marijuana at School Stirs Debate: How Big a Deal?


No big deal? That may be a widely held view about marijuana on this Island, but a discussion this week about marijuana use by students of the Martha's Vineyard High School turned into a big deal indeed.

Just three days after an article appeared in the Gazette about the presence and use of pot on the high school campus, school leaders reacted sharply, not just to the message but also to the messenger, high school principal Peg Regan.

School committee chairman Tim Dobel rebuked Mrs. Regan for overstating the problem. Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash reined in the principal, requiring her to consult him before speaking to the press on matters of "significant import."

Mrs. Regan publicly apologized Monday for having described marijuana use among students as "epidemic," but then quickly validated the statements of two student leaders who were quoted in the Gazette last week as saying that it's hardly unusual to see some students come to school either in possession of pot or under the influence of the drug.

"I would like to apologize to the students, and the parents, and the community, and certainly the school committee as well, for the embarrassing comment that I made in the paper last Friday, alluding to the fact that there was an epidemic of drugs in our high school. That is not true," she said.

"Occasionally even the principal screws it up - but that is no excuse for placing people, or for placing students most of all, in a situation where they are accused of having epidemic amounts of marijuana in the school."

The principal said her comments were meant to assess marijuana use Island-wide, not solely on the school campus.

"I don't believe there's a large amount of marijuana use going on inside the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School," said Mr. Dobel in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Are some kids coming to school stoned? Probably. We need to take a look at it."

What became clear Monday night at the regional high school committee meeting was that school leaders were grappling with at least two problems: a political rift within their own ranks, and a looming question over what to do about marijuana use among teens on the Island.

The discussion came just two months after the school council - an appointed board made up of teachers, students, parents and community members - tackled the issue of how to enforce school drug policies when Vineyard mores appear so accepting of marijuana.

Marijuana use among Vineyard teenagers is more than twice the national average, according to the most recent surveys that track risky behavior among teens.

It was a recent spate of activity on campus that prompted Mrs. Regan in November to bring the issue to the school council. In a period of four weeks, beginning last October, school administrators expelled two students for possession of marijuana and suspended another three who were found to be under the influence of the drug while at school.

Some high school faculty had urged Mrs. Regan not to expel the students. Mrs. Regan had turned to the school council looking for guidance on how to calibrate the school's disciplinary measures in an apparent climate of lax attitudes about pot on the Island.

Monday night, some school committee members said they felt ambushed by Mrs. Regan's statements in the Gazette. They were, they said, left to field telephone calls from concerned parents when they had no idea that marijuana at the high school had become a front-burner topic.

School committee vice-chairman Gail Palacios called for better updates from the principal. Judy O'Donoghue, a school committee member from Oak Bluffs, asked why the school board wasn't kept informed.

But Mrs. Regan pointed out that the minutes to school council meetings are routinely distributed to all school committee members. "In those minutes are a discussion about a culture of acceptance (about marijuana)," the principal told Ms. O'Donoghue.

"All those minutes are in there," Mrs. Regan added, pointing to the binders in front of each school committee member.

The discussion among committee members was marked by a deep level of ambivalence, not only over what should be done, if anything, but also over the magnitude of marijuana use both on and off campus, and whether it's increasing at school.

"I made a lot of calls, and there hasn't been any kind of meaningful change in behavior over the years," said Mr. Dobel. "There's a baseline of usage we already know about."

Ms. Palacios echoed a similar sentiment. "I don't think we don't have a drug problem here, but it's ongoing," she said. "If it's escalating, do we need more personnel, more teachers for drug education?"

Les Baynes, the school committee member from Edgartown, also called for some response from the school.

At one point, Mr. Dobel looked over to vice-principal Doug Herr, asking for his perspective on the problem. But Mr. Herr offered no analysis or assessment of whether marijuana use among students has increased.

"It's always a good idea to focus on it," said Mr. Herr, who suggested that the school council draft a report for the committee and determine whether the matter should be a priority for the school.

Later, Mr. Dobel said in a telephone interview that he was skeptical about the statements from students that depicted widespread presence of marijuana and marijuana use at the school.

"I don't mean to dismiss what kids have to say," he said. "But I also think that kids are kids, and kids love to be sensational."

Other committee members shifted the focus back onto the role played by the Vineyard community.

"This issue is wider than the school committee and the principal, wider than the students. What are we going to do about drugs on this Island?" asked Diane Wall, committee member from West Tisbury.

Robert Tankard, a school committee member from Tisbury, said the issue of drugs in the school needs to be dealt with on a community level.

"You can bring in cameras, bring in dogs or bring the police in, and the community would be in an uproar. They don't want it to happen, but the drugs are coming from home. They're coming from somewhere outside," he said. "Parents and police have to start getting a grip on this."

A behavior risk survey released almost two years ago showed that 44 per cent of Vineyard high school students had smoked marijuana in the past 30 days, a habit defined as current use.

Nationally, the rate of current use among 10th and 12th graders is just above 20 per cent, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

On the Island, pot use among some teens appears to be more of a daily activity, while alcohol consumption is reserved for weekends, substance abuse counselors at Martha's Vineyard Community Services said.

School committee members this week were emphatic that they won't tolerate drugs or drug use at the high school. "We are not going to allow drugs on this campus," said Ms. Palacios.

Mr. Cash, who remained silent throughout the discussion Monday night, said much the same thing when reached by telephone yesterday.

"There's no acceptance of drugs inside the school," he said.

Clearly, school leaders were eager to deflect any impression that the so-called "cultural acceptance" of marijuana extended to the front offices of the high school.

Mr. Dobel expressed dismay that the high school would be seen as condoning any level of marijuana use on campus. And he made it clear that his concern was amplified by the string of controversial events at the high school since last summer.

"The regional high school has taken a lot of hits," he said.

For the entire summer and into the fall, the high school lived under the cloud of scandal after one its teachers - Peter Koines - was arrested and charged with stealing student activity funds and kitchen equipment.

Mrs. Regan came under fire from some school committee members, who faulted her for acting too quickly to fire Mr. Koines. Then, last month, came the news about the existence of a hidden surveillance camera in the school, information that Mrs. Regan made public after threatening graffiti was found in the girls' bathroom.

School committee members hadn't known about the camera, and some of them didn't appreciate finding out about it in the newspaper, creating more friction with Mrs. Regan. This week the camera was turned off, awaiting a policy decision [see separate story on this page.]

Both Mr. Dobel and Mr. Cash spoke this week about a "no surprises" policy they have implemented with the principal. It was intended to improve communication.

"I would like, as the leadership, to be apprised of things rather than read about it in the paper," said Mr. Dobel.

Speaking about Mrs. Regan, he added, "I don't fault Peg for wanting to meet [the marijuana issue] head-on, but I was concerned about her use of language. She needs to be more careful. She's a shoot-from-the-hip kind of gal."

On Monday before the committee meeting, Mr. Dobel, Ms. Palacios and Mr. Cash sat down to talk with the principal about her comments to the Gazette.

When the meeting started at 7 p.m., the tension inside the library conference was palpable. There was no chatter and there were no smiles coming from either Mrs. Regan or Mr. Cash.

There was no mention of marijuana on the committee's agenda, and despite some bitterness over how the issue came to the forefront, the school board seems ready to dig in and find out more.

"We always tried to build a perimeter and make this a drug-free zone," Mr. Dobel told his committee. "Are we successful? Not 100 per cent. We need to bring all the stakeholders into this. If this is an issue, then the educational process is not much good. It's rotten at the root."

Edgartown resident Fred Condon called on the board to establish a task force, while also backing Mrs. Regan. "Perhaps it was an unforunate choice of words," he said. "But we need to validate her concerns."