It's almost like clockwork &#8211; as the marijuana crop matures each October, the number of students busted on drug-related offenses spikes across Petaluma's high school and middle school campuses.
"It happens every October, around the harvest," said Dave Rose, director of student services for Petaluma City Schools. "The rate of marijuana issues in our schools has dramatically increased with the liberal marijuana laws in our state."
To quantify that number, he said in the first 30 days of the 2013-14 school year, the Petaluma Unified School District recorded just six "hard suspensions," defined as a serious offense in which the student is suspended for five days. That number ballooned to 45 in the month of October, a fact Rose said can be linked to the annual marijuana harvest.
"I haven't done a count on how many (suspensions) are marijuana related, but it's a significant amount," Rose said, explaining that offenses range from being intoxicated at school to selling drugs on campus. "It's much more rare at the junior high level than it is at the high school level."
The district is working to stop the flow of drugs at Petaluma's high schools and middle schools, and has recently considered instigating random searches utilizing the Petaluma Police Department's drug-sniffing K-9 unit. Lt. Tim Lyons said the sweeps would be conducted at no cost to the district.
"We usually go at the request of the school," Lyons said.
At the beginning of the school year, the K9 unit demonstrated what its capable of sniffing out during an assembly at Kenilworth Junior High School. Rose said he's hopeful the experience will deter students from bringing drugs to school.
"If we can get one kid to change their behavior, than it's worth it," he said.
The police department currently staffs an officer at Petaluma High School, but no other campuses have a regular police presence.
Student drug use is by no means a new problem. Rose said the schools have seen an uptick in drug offenses ever since medical marijuana became legal in 1996. The district is being more proactive in dealing with the problem.
In addition to the drug-sniffing dogs, the school offers a unique substance abuse program that requires any student busted on a drug-related offense to attend counseling sessions. Funded by a state grant and administered through the Sonoma County Department of Health Services' Behavioral Health Division, roughly 100 Petaluma high school and middle school students have gone through the substance abuse program.
There is so much demand, the district staffs a licensed marriage and family therapist, along with a rotating group of interns, four days a week. The counselors work at any campus that they're needed, creating a network of ongoing support for students. So far, the effort appears to be working.
"Our suspension rates are lower than they've ever been and our graduation rate is up higher than ever," Rose said.
He said the issue goes beyond the schoolyard. Whenever a student faces drug charges, the first step is to make a plan of action that includes not only counseling for the student, but also classes for parents.
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