School-Based Approaches to Decreasing Student Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Use (ATOD)

November 24 2015


  • Dave Rose, Director of Student Services, Petaluma City Schools, Petaluma, CA
    Dave Rose
    Director of Student Services, Petaluma City Schools, Petaluma, CA

Based on California Healthy Kids Survey data, Sonoma County youth continue to report alcohol use rates, binge drinking and marijuana use that ranks in the highest 10% in our state.  Being in "wine country" and very close to counties with multiple marijuana growing operations are strong contributing factors.

For educators, one of the most alarming and significant consequences of this behavior is the impact of substance and alcohol use on the developing adolescent brain, as well as the increased risk of addiction. "Recent research has indicated that adolescent substance users show abnormalities on measures of brain functioning, which is linked to changes in neurocognition over time".1  A report from CASAColumbia indicates that 90% of Americans with addiction issues started ATOD use before the age of 18.  Additionally, 1 in 4 Americans beginning ATOD use before the age of 18 becomes addicted, while 1 in 25 who started using after age 21 becomes addicted.

In our Petaluma school district, ATOD use during the school day is not an issue for the majority of our students (<20%, according the California Healthy Kids survey data).  When an event does occur, however, our most effective strategy has been to individualize the response and intervention, greatly decreasing recidivism. A common characteristic of students that are habitually truant or drop out is regular substance use.  Knowing this, we have put some prevention and intervention strategies in place.


  • Annual review of behavior standards for all grade 7-12 students included in student planners;
  • Red Ribbon Week activities at all sites;
  • Health / Science / PE subject matter classroom instruction;
  • Grade 9 Human Interaction elective with ATOD focused unit;
  • Police Department K-9 Unit assembly for grade 7-12 schools including a live demonstration of canine "sniffing" abilities;
  • Use of grade 7-12 parent / family call-out system with message regarding marijuana harvest season and using the time as a ''teachable moment" for parents.


If a student is caught selling a controlled substance under the jurisdiction of the school district, the Education Code requires that the student be referred to the School Board for a hearing to consider expulsion from the district.  If a student is under the influence or in possession (not selling), we take the following steps:

  • The student is suspended for 5 days;
  • Consideration of law enforcement involvement;
  • Schedule a Site Discipline Hearing with site staff (administrator and counselor at least), student, parent/guardian, and district Student Services administrator.  The intent of the hearing is to gather information pertaining to the following issues:  
    1. Frequency and onset of use,
    2. Current impact on school and home,
    3. Current attendance, grades and conduct.  This information is used to develop an intervention plan with supports focused on the individual needs / status of the student;
  • An agreement is created with a detailed intervention plan, and if the student and family agree to the plan, we shorten the suspension to 3 days;
  • Baseline components of every agreement include:
    1. a lab-conducted urine analysis (UA) within 10 days of the event (establishes a baseline, particularly useful with marijuana issues) and two additional UA's at 30 day intervals from the first UA (allows us to assess effectiveness of the interventions, not used for further discipline action unless use is school-related),
    2. meet with a substance-use prevention counselor at least 3 times in the next 30 days (no-cost counseling is available at the school site, family may opt for private counseling), 3) student and parent / guardian attend an education session that addresses the impact of substance use on the adolescent brain and how our counseling system works.

If there is a repeat of the behavior at school, we refer to our Board for expulsion proceedings with recommendation of a suspended expulsion that would allow the student to remain at their current school, but would mandate the components of an intervention plan that would include monthly UA screens, counseling, and attendance, behavior, and academic goals.  More than 90% of our offenders meet the demands of either the first or second intervention plan and remain at their school site. The other 10% are subject to full expulsion to a Court and Community School; our County partner Community School also has embedded counseling and intervention supports to assist the student in meeting their goals and returning to district.

Effective Peer to Peer Student Prevention and Intervention

Community Matters offers a Peer-to-Peer Prevention Program (PPPP) that aims to decrease student use of ATOD. It identifies and selects socially-influential student leaders from grades 9-12. These young people are then trained in communication skills and techniques so they can effectively communicate about the use, misuse and abuse of ATOD’s with their peers.  The PPPP program utilizes many of the elements of Community Matter’s evidenced-based NREPP-listed Safe School Ambassador Program (SSA), which has been shown to decrease bullying and suspensions related to student misbehavior.

For more information about the ATOD Peer to Peer Prevention Program, you can visit our webpage, download this flier, or contact Erica Vogel at Community Matters Programs & Services at either or 707-823-6159 ext. 103.

1 The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development  - Squeglia, Jacobus, Tapert - Clin EEG Neurosci. 2009 Jan; 40(1): 31–38.

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