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NHS Student Assistance Team tackles substance abuse

When one thinks of the acronym “SAT” in terms of high school education, it’s nearly always the hours-long college admissions Scholastic Aptitude Test that comes to mind. For students at Newton Senior High School, however, SAT means something a little different.

Prior to the 2012-2013 school year, the NHS used a rather informal process when it came to helping students deal with issues at risk of affecting academic performance, such as behavioral problems and substance abuse. As classes began last fall, however, the process was formalized by Newton’s own SAT: the Student Assistance Team. 

“There used to be a team that was comprised of Cassia (Nolin, NHS counselor) and two admininstrators, but that was the extent of the team prior to this year,” NHS counselor Don Arends explained. “At the end of last school year, YSS [Youth Shelter and Services] was contracted to work with us and with students with various issues, so at the start of this year we began the SAT team in earnest.”

Comprised of NHS couselors, teachers, administrators and even the school nurse, the SAT was formed to “help students function in every capacity and in a better way,” according to Arends.

“The process starts with referrals, and anyone can make a referral – teachers, counselors, administrators, or students. The SAT addresses academics, home life, substance abuse and behavior – a referral can be generated by nearly any single issue and then, in that first meeting with the student, we determine the best way to approach the problem.”

In addition to referrals from counselors and teachers, the school’s student resource officer serves as a direct connection from events that may take place outside the classroom to the SAT.

“One of the things we start with in each meeting is that we ask the SRO, ‘Did anything happen this weekend?’” Arends said. “Before, I’m not even sure what the process was. Right away, [students involved in weekend incidents] are referrals that we’ll follow up on to see if there are issues with use that need to be addressed.”

As counselors, he and Nolin along with counselor Danielle Murphy and graduation coach Jen Wright work closely with each student for whom they receive a referral; the program is, however, formally headed up by YSS counselor Crystal Walker-Smith.

“The process begins with that where Crystal will introduce the new referrals at our next meeting, and that’s our launching point,” Arends explained. “From there, we can determine what the best way to assist that student is and, more often than not, it does involve Crystal sort of taking the lead because, frankly, many of the referrals are related to substance abuse.”

Because of the nature of many of the issues addressed by the SAT, having YSS as an immediate, at-hand resource has proved to be beneficial during the team’s first six months.

“The benefit of having YSS here and having them be part of the Student Assistance Team is that we have an automatic tie-in to further treatment services, especially for substance abuse,” Nolin said. “In the past, we might have to leave it up to the parents to find a place for their child to go for recovery. Now we have people here to help them do the paperwork and and explain to them what recovery means, so that has been helpful.”

“SAT allows us to really come together as a group and collaborate,” Murphy added. “Many of the issues we deal with affect academic work, they affect home life and relationships within the family, so having Crystal here helps us to make the referrals that are needed and also to work with her on how it’s impacting them in every avenue of their lives.”

Because the program is still in its inaugural year, no complete data is available in terms of students that have benefited from the SAT; Arends said, though, the change in many students has been both positive and dramatic.

“Several students have receieved assistance that they might otherwise not have – there’s no way to know that for certain, of course,” he said. “We see an impact, but obviously you always want to make more of an impact and see more referrals.”

Wright echoed this, hoping that the more solid framework for spotting at-risk students put in place by the SAT will help the team reach more students.

“Hopefully we’ll hit more of our student population that we wouldn’t see necessarily,” she added. “We have guidelines for teachers to give them something to look for – if they have something to look for and if they are seeing that, then they need to refer them so we can figure out a solution. The team is just another asset for us.”

Despite the good things Arends, Wright, Nolin and Murphy have witnessed as a result of the SAT’S influence over the past six months, Arends recognized the need for constant evaluation in order to make the team as strong and effective as possible.

“Compared to what we’ve had, it’s a huge sucess,” he said. “But but there’s clearly room for improvement.”

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