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National Conference on Drug Abuse Prevention Research:
Presentations, Papers, and Recommendations

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Panel Presentations

Thomas J. Connelly
President
Life Skills Training Curriculum


National Conference on Drug Abuse Prevention Research

This is an interesting year in my life. Two very significant things have happened to me. One was that the last of my children have graduated from either college or medical school. Free at last - I actually went out for dinner last night, paid cash, did not pay by credit card, and ate red meat. The second most significant thing that happened to me is that after 31 years in public education, I retired. I am in the process of developing a consulting business to work with school districts around the country. I was going to sit home and watch "Oprah," but I could not do that. So this evening, I leave for Anchorage, AK, to begin some work there.

As I look at these past 30 years, I reflect back on my career in education. Any of you who work in education or know about educators know that we are pretty much "bonded" to our schools. I remember my first year as a principal of a large high school of about 3,000 students in 1983. The staff of the school started coming to my office, saying, "Hey, Connelly, we have some problems here. We are seeing more kids pregnant. We are seeing more kids using drugs. We are seeing more violence in our schools." What they were saying was that they were seeing more aggression, not physical violence. "We need to do something about this," they said.

Not having tenure at the time, I thought it was a good idea for me to go to my school board at a public meeting and inform them of this problem, which we had not formally surveyed. I went to my board of education meeting, and I introduced myself as a principal of one of the high schools. I said, "We have a problem. We need to do something proactively rather than reactively." But it fell on deaf ears, if you know what I mean. So I went back on a second Tuesday night and gave the same spiel. I got a little energetic and started waving my finger, but I don't think they liked that very much. On the third time I went back to my school board meeting, I was reprimanded by the president of the board of education and told that I should not air my "dirty laundry" in public. That began my career, not only in the field of public administration - education administration - but also in the implementation of programs in my district. That Tuesday night I was devastated, and I was convinced that tenure would never come my way. On Thursday night of that same week, the senior-class son of the president of the board of education left school early, went home, turned on Pink Floyd's "The Wall," and blew his brains out after taking LSD.

In my community, as in many of the communities I work in, to have any kind of change - because in education sometimes "change" is a dirty word - you have to have a crisis. Unfortunately, that is what happened in my community. The school board decided that they were going to do something. They posted a position for director of special counseling programs. That position was to do a number of things: oversee all prevention efforts, intervention efforts, and postintervention efforts; develop and supervise alternative schools for kids who were having adjustment problems in regular school programs; train teachers in how to deal with these issues; and reach out to the community, not only to educate the community but also to ask for help.

This was long before the availability of drug-free school money, long before some of those wonderful things that started to happen in the research. When they posted that position, typical to education, there was no funding. So I took that position, and I was doing that for the past 14 years until I retired. Each day of my life working in this area, I dealt with - and I deal with - the issues of this terrible problem.

But I remember my dreams at the time when I first took the position, before I had the research of Gil Botvin, of Hawkins and Catalano, of Emmy Werner. There was a void out there, and I remember that on the first day that the job was posted in the newspapers, one of our board members said, "We don't need that position. All we have to do is bring dogs into our school, and we will solve the problem." I remember having consistently bad dreams that each morning I would get up and go to my large kennel in the backyard and pick the drug dog of the day to go home with me. One night, my dog Scobie fell asleep in the back of my pickup truck and when he stuck his head through the window halfway across the bridge to work, I thought the nightmare had come true.

Part of what I would like to do here today is talk about some of the ways in which we implemented programs in our school district, about what I am beginning to see after spending 30 years in one system, and about what I am beginning to see out there in America - some of the trends and some of the great success stories due to some of the great work done by NIDA and other agencies.

My background is teaching chemistry, so I appreciate the research. I was trained to understand that one of the things you need to do is to base whatever you are doing on the research, and as I began to look up all of the good information, I came across this wonderful program by Gil Botvin. What it said made sense in relationship to the other research that was out there, which is that you can prevent this problem. I would like to give you a sense of how we began to look at this.

After doing an extensive survey, or needs assessment, it was clear that our community had a problem. Many problems that we identified centered around the issues of early first use of gateway drugs, primarily tobacco. Our assumption was that if we could reduce the number of kids using tobacco, we could reduce the number of kids using drugs from that point on. We understood that we had to involve the school, community organizations, parents, law enforcement, students, and community support systems. At that time, the faith communities were, and still are, part of our efforts. It was clear to us that without those significant players, we could not succeed in what we were intending to do.

Believe it or not, the one area that seemed to be the most difficult to get into this process of prevention was the schools. Over the past 15 years of doing this, it has been a whole lot easier for me - and I can say this as a public educator - to motivate other organizations. My great challenge until the day I retired was getting schools to change. We wanted to develop primary prevention programs, secondary prevention programs, early intervention, late intervention, and aftercare. The core issue was to develop a foundation on which we would build everything else. In education, that foundation was the prevention curriculum, beginning early in kindergarten and going through high school. In some cases now, we are into preschool.

We presented the concept to the school system and to the community in a series of three boxes. In one box were all of the programs labeled as prevention. In the second box were intervention programs, and the third box contained aftercare programs.

The primary prevention program in the prevention box was the Life Skills Training (LST) program at Cornell University. When we started to evaluate the success of that program, we noticed a dramatic change. We had about a 15- to 20-percent higher use of cigarettes and nicotine in our school system than any other school system in New York State. But after the second or third year, when we started our new needs assessment, on average we started to measure a 15- to 18-percent reduction in use of marijuana by students.

Over time, we started to notice students who were moving into our school system who had never had the LST program. Giving them a Justice Department program called "Smart," we began comparing the students who had had the LST program with those who had not had the program. What was the difference? Clearly, we noticed that the kids who had been caught smoking in the schools were kids who did not have the Life Skills Training.

What did we learn? The programs have been successful for 15 years, and we have data that consistently show we have made a difference. We still have some problems, of course, like most communities. It is clear to me as I travel to various communities throughout this country and the rest of the world that there has to be some kind of rationale developed with communities for doing this. I went to Guam about 4 years ago to implement a social skills program there for the Catholic schools, and I found that there were issues that were being ignored. I came up with the concept, which I brought back to my school district, of "Pay me now, or pay me later." The idea is that this problem is not going to go away unless a concept is developed about how to solve it.

To do that, basic components are needed: (1) a rationale for setting up programs; (2) an evaluation and a needs assessment to ascertain the nature of the present problem so that a determination can be made later about whether you have made a difference; (3) implementation, or core programs that embody the results of research; (4) someone to monitor that program; and (5) someone to reevaluate it.

Many communities that have started programs but no longer continue them need to know about the success stories, the data associated with those success stories, and what they need to change to become more successful.

Over the past 15 years, the most difficult part about implementation was convincing the community and my colleagues that this could work. That continues to be the major challenge for me in working in school communities. The challenge is to identify a problem and make people understand that the problem is not going to go away. "Pay me now or pay me later," but you are going to pay for this problem one way or the other.

Another challenge is to set up programs that are based on the research, act as foundations for all other programs, are comprehensive, and work according to the research. An additional challenge is getting someone in a school community - now it is a team approach, but it used to be an individual - to make sure that programs are sustained. Someone is needed to monitor those programs and conduct the evaluations, and someone else is needed to take that information and cause change to happen on an ongoing basis.

As I drove across the bridge leading across the Hudson River going to the school district for my first day 30 years ago, I was lost. I did not know the location of the high school where I was going to teach chemistry. As I drove through my very large school district, I noticed children on street corners with name tags on, with moms and dads out there supporting them on their first day of school. When I observed those kindergartners on their very first day waiting for the school bus, my fantasy at the time was, "Wow! Someday that kid is going to be in my classroom. Someday I might teach that kid chemistry." For about 30 years, the first day of school was a significant one, because I would purposely drive through my community and look at those kids with name tags on.

On the first day of my last year in public education, I spoke to a group of guidance counselors I had hired for one of our high schools. My instruction to those guidance counselors was, "Listen: You need to know that you can't sit in your classroom or office and wait for kids to come to you. You need to be out and about dealing with these issues."

Later I headed toward that high school where two of the new guidance counselors were out there talking with their students rather than waiting in their offices. As I drove toward the high school through the same community in which I had worked for 30 years, two police cars passed me, then an ambulance, and then another ambulance.

When I pulled into the driveway of the high school, all the police cars and ambulances were parked in front of the school. As I walked into the guidance office to greet the two new guidance counselors, I observed them sitting on the couch in shock, because on their first day they had observed a student who had just come into our school district who had dropped acid. The student had gone to the guidance office, pulled out two knives, and stabbed to death one of his classmates.

I said, "On my first day of my first 30 years, my concern was about having enough sodium bicarbonate to do the first workshop and enough test tubes and glassware." Today I think about the challenge to some of the educators with whom I work, what their first day was like, and what their 30 next years are going to be like.


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