Drug education, prevention program opens at Malibu High

Students who are caught under the influence of drugs or alcohol are usually sent to a program in Santa Monica for a semester. Now, one is available on campus, and seminars are conducted for parents and their children.

By Carolanne Sudderth/Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu teens will no longer have to travel to Santa Monica to seek the help offered by Promises. The drug education, intervention and prevention program has opened a branch at Malibu High School.

Addiction Specialist Susie Spain has been working to keep youth off drugs in Santa Monica schools for almost a decade under the auspices of Promises, a Malibu treatment center that focuses on adults.

The fact that the program is limited to Santa Monica students has not necessarily kept Malibu teens from attending. Students caught under the influence of drugs or alcohol are sent to Promises for a semester, said Gloria Martinez, Malibu High School’s assistant principal. “Part of the requirement to come back is having completed a 24-hour counseling program-12 individual hours, plus 12 hours of family counseling, ” she said.

However, the Santa Monica location forces teens and their parents to make a long afterschool drive. Spain’s new program, Angels At Risk, will meet in Malibu, saving gas for parents and students alike.

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Angels At Risk treats the family rather than the individual, and Spain believes in treating the child as a branch of the family tree. “Kids who are getting high don’t feel great about themselves anyway, so if they’re considered the only problem, then it just continues to make them feel like they’re not good enough,” Spain said.

She knows whereof she speaks; a former drug addict herself, she has been sober for the past 22 years. “The greatest gift a parent can get from a child at-risk is an opening of their hearts,” Spain said.

Officials don’t see the program as punishment. “I see it as an opportunity while the child is still young to really support that child and that parent in making better choices,” said Kathy McTaggart, coordinator of School and Community Partnerships for Santa Monica High, “and that kind of early intervention can make a difference.”

John (not his real name), 21, is one of a number of recovering people who works with Spain to pass on what he has learned. He describes the best thing about the program as the “hands-down honesty, which helps adults and kids smooth out the relationship.”

A child of privilege, the Malibu resident grew up in a single-parent family and attended Brentwood School. When he was 16, he crashed his car. Police found a six-pack in the trunk. The court ordered John into treatment.

Even then, he wasn’t open to attending the program. “When you’re 16, 17, you’re so independent, and it’s hard for you to take direction,” he said. “I didn’t think I needed any help. I didn’t want to do exercises with my mom. I just wanted to hang out with my friends.”

His relationship with his mom began to improve after his first session, he said. At meetings, parents and kids were separated into groups where they work with facilitators to write “love notes” detailing the goods things about their relationships as well enumerating obstacles. Later, the groups reunited to discuss what they’ve written and ways to work out the problems.

While in college, John fell back into trouble, doing two or three grams of cocaine a day, six to seven days a week. However, he has now been sober for one year, and credits his experience with the Promises program in facilitating how he and his mother dealt with the issue this time around.

Spain said, “There is an increasing amount of alcohol experimentation in the seventh and eight grades. If you could help kids in the middle schools, if parents would listen to their children’s first at-risk behavior, then it would save them and their children so much pain later, because if you see it once, you’ll see it again. It doesn’t go away.

“There’s the whole cycle of experimenting with drugs, and then using once in a while to cope with things, and then all of a sudden, they can’t do things without the drugs, and they’re addicted,” she continued. “At the end of the day, the kids may be the ones acting up, but they’re acting out a symptom of a family program. If the family embraces the teen as sort of symptomatic of an imbalance in the family and helps them, then not only will the teen heal, but so will the entire family.”

Warning signs of trouble include staying out late, arguing with parents, isolating themselves, failing grades and anger-“all of those things,” Spain said. “Anytime there’s any kind of problem in any family, it’s much better for the whole family to make changes and look at the issue.”

A presentation for parents and children, “Keeping Kids Safe from Drugs and Alcohol,” will take place March 3 in the Malibu High Library. It is sponsored by the Promises Foundation, Malibu High School and the Angels At Risk Foundation. More information can be obtained by calling 310.457.6801 ext. 276.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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