Recently, there was an important dialogue that took place at the Montgomery County Council building. A joint Education and Health and Human Services work session addressed the current status of drug abuse in our schools, notably the epidemic of prescription drug abuse by middle and high school students. In attendance were MCPS officials who discussed data trends, administrative challenges and possible school service improvements.
This is a subject I have first-hand knowledge in. For many years I had worked in the community with both students and families touched by the challenge of alcohol and drug addiction. Of course, I brought these skills to the dais during my County Council term as budget decisions were made and the few times MCPS participated in council discussions on this urgent problem. And I must admit after hearing from countless clinicians, parents and students on this topic after this recent public conversation, I find myself frustrated once again by the all-too-familiar finger-pointing and unnecessary delays at swift and decisive action.
The solutions for this growing community crisis are clear.
First off, there needs to be an established protocol for screening, early intervention and responsive services at every school location. This requires a firm commitment from both the Board of Education and our superintendent. That means sufficient dollars to staff the guidance units appropriately. Plenty of other school districts across this country could serve as models for a school-based program.
The best practices are already established. Letís utilize these standards and ensure that there are adequate dollars for a school program that puts the correct focus on prevention and early treatment. This would go a long way in correcting a troubling pattern: Most children enrolled in county substance abuse programming and receiving counseling services are there because of court-ordered referrals. In other words, most are not being referred routinely by MCPS for any kind of screening or treatment. Itís high time to staff the schools with adequate personnel, both MCPS and other county employees. A team effort would be a good beginning. Itís required.
In order to address the rapid increase of prescription drug abuse by teenagers, county government must get serious about treatment programming. This requires a firm commitment from both the County Council and our county executive as well. While the county has provided treatment dollars in the difficult fiscal climate of the last few years, itís been insufficient given the growing challenge. There are excellent, evidence-based programs in Montgomery County for adolescent substance abuse, provided by hospitals, private clinicians and nonprofit providers. Regrettably, the reality is the number of treatment slots and even beds available are woefully inadequate. Most teens and their families needing public services must wait for any meaningful intervention. Upcounty and out west in Montgomery County, where the adolescent drug abuse problems are the most severe, there are few if any options for families to exercise. Again inadequate funding is the real enemy here, staring us right in the face year after year. Itís the right time for county government to prioritize substance abuse programming in the HHS budget. Letís finally give teens, families, county clinical staff and importantly, community providers the real help they need to address the complexity of adolescent substance abuse. There are no acceptable excuses anymore. Itís imperative.
Many activists and professionals argue that improved data collection is essential. I would agree that it is. However, our first order must be the prioritization of treatment dollars for our schools and community partners. The future of our children depends on it. No kidding.
Duchy Trachtenberg, Bethesda
The writer served as an a-large member of the Montgomery County Council from 2006-2010 and had maintained a private clinical practice specializing in adolescent addiction prior to her election.