GORHAM — As a special education teacher, I believe that schools should be evaluated based on the treatment of our most difficult and complex students.

Schools are designed to meet the needs of the majority, as exemplified in a school’s code of conduct. A code of conduct is developed by a school committee to provide administrators with disciplinary guidance and to ensure that consequences for similar offenses are equitable. Aspects of these policies are often outdated remnants of failed zero-tolerance policies. This is particularly true when examining alcohol and substance use discipline policies.

Each district sets guidelines, so policies differ depending on location. In several districts in Cumberland County, students in possession or under the influence of a prohibited substance are suspended for 10 days and recommended for expulsion. Students are out of school for at least 10 school days, with the potential for more time out of the classroom.

Students using drugs or drinking alcohol in middle and high school are often students at risk for negative outcomes in the future. Though it is entirely possible for a straight A student with a supportive family to bring drugs to school, it is much more likely to be a marginalized student. These students may struggle academically, have experienced trauma or abuse, have a mental health diagnosis or are not receiving the necessary support at home.

So, what does this look like? Several students I’ve worked with have been in possession of or consumed marijuana at school. All of these students were suspended for 10 days, then expelled for 25 days with conditions placed on their re-entry. For re-entry, there was a research project related to the offense, an impact statement, 40 hours of community service, a mandatory meeting with a substance use counselor and a passed drug test.

This sounds reasonable, but the responsibilities often fall on the parents, not the students. Parents may provide transportation to community service and frequently contact places for community service. Parents must contact their child’s pediatrician, if they have one, and schedule a drug test to be completed before appearing before the school board. Parents schedule and transport their child to the meeting with a substance use counselor. If a parent is unwilling or unable to support their child through the re-entry process, then the student will remain out of school longer.

When I think of the students I worked with, the student I worried about most was the student who was not able to complete their re-entry process because of a lack of parental support. This student missed the final two months of school and was still not eligible to come back because of an incomplete re-entry process.

So, what can we do differently? Let’s eliminate zero-tolerance policies. Each student and their needs are different, so the discipline may also look different and reflect the idea that time out of school may not be a requirement.

Our schools need to re-examine their drug education programming to make sure that it is comprehensive, engaging for students and balanced. When students are using drugs or alcohol, intervention and counseling programs should be offered. Finally, restorative processes can replace expulsion by identifying harm caused by the student’s behavior and then working to make amends.

Required and repeated drug testing is not included. Several organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Association for Addiction Professionals, the National Education Association and the National Association of Social Workers, oppose testing teenage students for drugs. Drug testing damages the relationship between students and school, creates barriers to accessing education and can encourage students to drink alcohol or use drugs that leave the system faster.

In Maine, we are grappling with the opioid crisis. More often than not, communities are turning to treatment rather than punishment. Why should it be any different in our schools? The research is clear on expulsion: Being expelled from school is the single greatest predictor that a student will not graduate from high school.

Expelled students are more likely to be unemployed, incarcerated or drug users as adults. We need to re-examine our substance use policies to ensure that we are intervening and supporting at-risk students, rather than creating a system that marginalizes at-risk students even more.

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