Friday, April 18, 2014

School officials trained to detect drug abuse


California Highway Patrol Officer Travis Herbert checks for nystagmus — the involuntary twitching of eyes, one of the telltale signs of drug or alcohol use — in test subject Kenneth Durham, vice principal at Emerson Junior High School. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

From page A1 | December 12, 2013 | 4 Comments

In the conference room inside the Davis High School library last Friday, Vice Principal Tom McHale was checking Rhona Youtsey’s pupils.

As McHale moved a pen back and forth in front of Youtsey’s eyes, he was watching for nystagmus — the involuntary twitching of her eyes, one of the many telltale signs that drugs or alcohol may have been ingested.

After confirming no nystagmus was present, the pair reversed roles, and Youtsey, Davis High’s nurse, checked McHale’s eyes.

A few steps away, Teresa Simi, also a school district nurse, was testing Holmes Junior High School Vice Principal Jean Kennedy’s pupils.

Later, Simi would have Kennedy walk in a straight line, heel to toe, to see if her balance was impaired, and test whether she could easily touch her finger to her nose.

Others in the room — nearly all nurses and vice principals — would do the same, along with a battery of other assessments aimed at helping them better detect drug use among students in Davis schools.

It was all part of a two-day drug impairment training conducted by California Highway Patrol Officer Travis Herbert.

Herbert said the CHP and the California Office of Traffic Safety — which paid for the training — have a pretty basic goal in bringing the program to educators: to ensure that students who use drugs or alcohol on campus — or arrive there already under the influence — are discovered by school staff before they get in their cars and drive home.

But there is another reason for the training as well, according the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office and Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis, who helped coordinate the training.

“By training school staff to recognize when students are under the influence of drugs,” said District Attorney Jeff Reisig, “we hope to address those serious issues early before we have to address them in the criminal justice system. Through early intervention, we can ensure that our young people can go on to live productive and successful lives.”

That local school officials need help in this area is undisputed among administrators and school staff.

Last year, 52 Davis students were suspended for drugs or alcohol, some of them more than once, according to Laura Juanitas, director of student support services for the school district.

Administrators said that total likely represents just a fraction of all the students who are using on campus and Juanitas said that while it’s too soon to say if that number will increase this school year, the numbers don’t appear to be decreasing.

“In response to the district’s concern with students using drugs (and alcohol),” Juanitas said in an email, “we arranged for the … training for administrators to be better informed about what it looks like when students are under the influence.”

They also got a look at the new and ever-evolving world of drug use.

Herbert had with him a table full of paraphernalia — some of it confiscated from Davis High students — that showed just how ingenious drug-delivery systems have become, not to mention the additional challenges posed for administrators.

The good old marijuana “sniff test,” for example, has become increasingly obsolete as students turn to vaping pot rather than smoking it. Herbert demonstrated how a vaporizer confiscated on campus allows marijuana to be vaporized, letting students exhale steam rather than smoke and removing the telltale scent of pot.

It’s still marijuana, Herbert noted.

“You are stoned,” he said. “You just can’t smell it.”

And while the more high-tech vaporizers can be costly, inventive kids can make their own, including by hollowing out a simple light bulb.

In fact, there seems to be no end to ways students can disguise their drug use. Herbert showed vaporizers disguised to look like albuterol inhalers or PDAs and said all are available for purchase on the Internet or in head shops.

“Someone would probably be willing to do something like this in class,” he noted of the inhalers.

Even the increasingly popular, and largely unregulated, e-cigarettes can be used for marijuana vaping.

And all of these tools “are the wave of the future,” Herbert said.

“Why? Because they’re getting it around law enforcement. We relied upon smell for marijuana for so long.”

Herbert has been training educators since 2006 and is constantly updating his presentation to take into account what’s new in the world of drugs.

“It’s never the same class twice,” he said. “And after almost every class I do, I get an email from someone (who attended) saying, ‘We found this, we found that.’ ”

In addition to providing the latest information on drug use, Herbert walked participants through the assessment process needed whenever a student is suspected to be under the influence at school. The assessments — which Herbert said take about 45 minutes — involve a checklist for administrators to go through, covering everything from pupils to heart rate, blood pressure to balance.

Different substances will cause different symptoms, he said, with some drugs lowering heart rate while others raise it. Some cause nystagmus, others don’t. Provided with a chart showing what each drug category causes, administrators can not only determine if a student is under the influence, but what he or she likely ingested.

The assessments start the minute someone, perhaps a teacher, “notices something goofy,” Herbert said.

At that point, the teacher likely would call the vice principal.

Kennedy, the vice principal at Holmes, said she would then send campus security to get the student. Ideally two individuals would go — one to escort the student to the office, the other to go through the student’s backpack and inspect the surrounding area in case the student jettisoned something incriminating.

Ideally, then, the student would see a school nurse for an assessment. However, most Davis campuses share nurses, so there might not necessarily be a nurse on campus. That’s when the vice principals take over the assessment.

“Pay attention to everything,” Herbert told them — everything from hygiene to demeanor.

“Give them every opportunity to succeed,” he added.

If it’s a girl in high heels, for example, let her take them off before doing a balance test, he said.

And always, he said, the possibility of a medical issue must be cleared before the assessment can proceed.

Often, students will own up to ingesting something early on, but whether they do or not, if administrators suspect drug use following an assessment, they must make the decision to contact parents and possibly the Davis Police Department.

Davis police Officer Kimberly Walker, who attended the training last week, said when police are brought in, what happens next depends on the substance involved.

It is not illegal in Davis for someone under the age of 21 to have alcohol in his or her system, she noted, so there isn’t much the police can do there — though schools themselves can take action.

When other substances are suspected, “we go and make our own assessments,” Walker said, adding that it’s important to remember that with kids, “drugs are just a symptom of a bigger problem.”

Still, she said, “Our policy is if a child under 18 is under the influence in our presence, we shall arrest. Not ‘may’ arrest, ‘shall’ arrest.”

When arrest does occur, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean handcuffs and a trip to Juvenile Hall, she said, “but we do call parents.”

From there, students will be referred to the Police Department’s youth intervention specialist, Trease Petersen, who runs a diversion program for all first-time youth offenders in Davis.

Learn more about the Drug Impairment Training for Education Professionals at

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

Anne Ternus-Bellamy


Discussion | 4 comments

The Davis Enterprise does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

  • RKDecember 12, 2013 - 8:49 am

    Does anyone else see what could go wrong here? Do we really wonder why the truancy levels at our schools remain so high?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • wdf1December 12, 2013 - 10:45 am

    I'm not following you. Truancy levels compared to what? Truancy takes place for many reasons besides drug use. Bob Dunning described at least one additional reason a few years ago:

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • RKDecember 12, 2013 - 1:39 pm

    Suspension and expulsion results in students falling behind in class and are at risk of failing courses and dropping out of school. While the intention of helping students who have drug and alcohol problems is a good one, the disciplinary actions taken by the administration compound the problem and could be called a push out policy. Students who fall behind and see no way of catching up will stop going to class They will fall further and further behind and eventually have to find alternative means to get through high school or drop out altogether. Alternatively, students will just not come to school, when they see administrators eager to try out their new found skills in detecting drug use pulling kids out of class based on the probable cause of "acting goofy."

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • December 12, 2013 - 11:54 pm

    Travis puts on a great class. This guy know his stuff and teaches it in a very fun and entertaining fashion- I know because I've been to one of his classes. It should be mandatory for all educators.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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