Vashon school district brings on substance abuse pro

This school year a full-time substance abuse counselor will work to address an issue that has generated increasing concern on Vashon: the Island’s high rates of teen alcohol and marijuana use.

Terri Tilotta, who just started as the school district’s new prevention and intervention specialist, will split her time between the middle school and high school, working with students, teachers and parents to bring Vashon’s substance abuse rates more in line with state averages.

The new position and accompanying curriculum are largely funded by a state grant the school district received to participate in a pilot program for small districts. Three other school districts in the Puget Sound Educational Services District (PSESD) and several more across the state were also chosen for the program, which the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction created in an effort to redistribute drug prevention funding to school districts that need it most, providing them with the on-site specialist.

Vashon School District Sup-erintendent Michael Soltman said he was happy Vashon was chosen to participate in the pilot program. Over the last few years, the state’s Healthy Youth Survey results showed that at some grade levels on Vashon, alcohol and marijuana use is significantly higher than the state average.

“I think we have a really difficult drug problem here in our community,” Soltman said. “Having  a focused resource that provides both intervention and prevention services has been missing in terms of us being able to deal with this problem.”

Tilotta, who has a master’s degree in education and is a certified clinical dependency professional and school guidance counselor, has worked as an adolescent treatment counselor since 2001 and has held positions at schools in the Tacoma School District and the Franklin Pierce School District.

On Vashon, Tilotta said, she will counsel students individually, provide support groups, work in classrooms, offer teacher training and perhaps develop programs to address Vashon’s individual needs.

“I’m still ... talking with kids, trying to figure out what they think there is to do on the Island for entertainment,” Tilotta said. “From the kids I’ve spoken to so far, it’s drink and smoke weed. Some of what I’m going to be looking at … is what can we do to allow them to give other answers to that question.”

The state grant funds a wide variety of curricula Tilotta will use to teach drug and alcohol awareness in classes at both the middle school and high school. She will train teachers to recognize addiction problems in students, she said, encourage them to report students who show signs of drug or alcohol use and work to correct any misconceptions teachers have.

Tillota also has materials to help with student interventions.

“Quite a bit comes with it in terms of resources she can bring,” Soltman said.

Tilotta, an employee of PSESD, will work closely with the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA), formerly known as the Drug-Free Communities Coalition. VARSA helped the school district  earn the grant and will partner with the district to provide $14,000 in matching funds required for the program — which costs about $70,000.

VARSA has committed to providing $7,000 to $10,000 in funding, and the school district will contribute $4,000 to $7,000 of its operating budget, Soltman said.

“I think its great we can get that kind of full-time service and support for a few thousand dollars,” Soltman said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for this community.”

Tilotta, who lives in Tacoma, said she was drawn to working on Vashon because it is more rural than the other communities where she has previously worked and because she believes students on the Island drink and do drugs for a different set of reasons than those in the city.

“It presents a bit of a challenge,” Tilotta said.

She also liked that Vashon already has a community coalition — VARSA — actively working to address teen substance abuse. Tilotta will join the 14-member VARSA board.

“It has a lot of really positive things going on already. … I don’t think I can or should be able to do it all myself. I very much believe in getting parents and the greater community involved,” she said.

Luke McQuillin, who heads VARSA, believes having a full-time substance abuse counselor in the schools will create a stronger alliance between VARSA and the school district and give Vashon the extra edge it needs to cut back on teen substance abuse rates.

“We’re very excited about this,” he said.

It may even be possible, McQuillin noted, to now complete a comprehensive prevention program for all grades on Vashon, a long-time goal of VARSA.

“With Terri there, we may be able to move that forward at a quicker pace,” he said.

Though the new position is a pilot program, Soltman said, Tilotta could be on Vashon for up to five years.

“The intent is a long-term relationship,” he said. “I hope it can be, because I think this is a stubborn problem that will take some really strong, direct effort over a period of time.”



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