Dear Members of the Reading Community:
We are all saddened by the recent events that have involved young men who grew up in our community, attended our public schools, and who many of us knew as friends, family members, teammates, or students. At times like this, we are reminded that these senseless acts can happen anywhere, even in a suburban community likeReading. When events like this occur, there may be concerns about the type of community that our children are raised in and how they will be affected. We begin to ask questions about what could have been done differently to help these young adults. During times like this, it is important for us as a community to reassess what we are doing, evaluate if it is still effective, and make changes where necessary. In addition, we need to listen to our children and their concerns, reassure them that they are safe, and educate them to make good decisions that will positively impact their lives. These tragic situations have shaken our community and have shone a bright light on an issue that so many communities must face. Sadly, they also have provided us an opportunity, even a challenge perhaps, to work collaboratively with everyone in our community to examine the issue more thoroughly and to better understand that this is not solely a law enforcement problem, or a family problem, or a school problem . . . it is a community problem that we all must address together.
During the last few weeks, there has been a significant amount of conversation about the role that the school system can take in addressing not only the substance abuse issue, but also the overall behavioral health of children and teens. This has definitely been an area of focus for the school system, and a topic for which the Reading Public Schools can continue to provide leadership in our community. Over the last four years, since these young adults graduated from high school, significant progress has been made by this community and the Reading Public Schools in addressing the societal pressures that our youth face each and every day. One of the actions taken several years ago was the formation of the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse (RCASA), a community organization consisting of representatives from town government, the school district, law enforcement, clergy, behavioral health providers, pharmacies, parents, youth groups, businesses, and the community at large. The letter that was published last week by the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse (RCASA) youth crew outlines the different initiatives that RCASA and its partners have accomplished over the last six years. These initiatives have begun to show positive effects in some areas in our community and in our schools.
There has also been dialogue in the community about establishing zero tolerance policies in our schools for students in the classroom, in athletics, and in extra-curricular activities. Two years ago, the Reading School Committee approved a progressive Search and Seizure policy, which included the implementation of breathalyzers at all high school student dances. As this policy was deliberated, some members of the community felt that the policy went too far and did not give students a second chance if they were caught under the influence of alcohol. In addition, we have enforced on several occasions the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) regulations on substance abuse for athletes. Annually, the captains and coaches for all of the athletic teams participate in leadership training that focuses on the negative consequences of substance abuse and risky behaviors. We will continue to identify ways to educate our students in our classrooms and on our playing fields to make good decisions, impose consequences when they have not abided by the rules and policies, and provide interventions to help them recover from the mistakes that they have made. Zero tolerance policies are only effective when you provide supports for the students after they have been accused or involved in an incident. While we need to hold our teens accountable, we of course cannot just make examples of them and give up on them. We need them to effectively learn from their mistakes and to move forward as productive members of our community and society.
As the community of Reading, we need to understand that the substance abuse issue is the symptom of a greater problem: the growing emotional and behavioral health needs of our students. Last year, the Reading Public Schools held three showings of the documentary, Race to Nowhere, which highlighted the stress and anxiety that our children face each and every day. One reason for this increased stress and anxiety is the pressure for our students to succeed, a characteristic found in many suburban communities. We create cultures where our children have to get into the best colleges, take all of the right classes, and over schedule themselves to gain that competitive advantage. For some students, this works; for others it can lead to distress. In addition, some of our students come to school emotionally unprepared to learn because of what is happening in their lives outside of school. As a result, they may come to school late or not at all, get into trouble frequently, or not be able to focus on learning. They may have a family member who is out of work, clinically depressed, or involved in substance abuse. There may have been a death recently in their family. The student may have been abused, using drugs or alcohol or hanging around with peers who could have a negative influence on them. It is very possible that these same students play sports, are involved in extra-curricular activities, or take honors level courses. These are not “bad kids,” but kids who have lost their way and are at risk. As a community we all need to work together to identify who these students are, get them the help that they need, and help them get back on track with school and their personal lives. If we do not get them those critical supports, it can result in risky behaviors including theft, overdose, cutting, attempted suicide, and possibly death. It is very difficult for anyone to get out of this downward spiral unless they get the help that they need. That is where our community can play a critical role.
One of the areas that the Reading Public Schools has been focused on over the last year is identifying ways to improve the behavioral health of all our students. As a result of the discussions emanating from the showing of Race to Nowhere, a group of dedicated teachers, administrators, parents and the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse formed a Behavioral Health task force. This group developed a set of recommendations for what our schools and our community can do to support students, reduce anxiety, and help them become more emotionally ready to learn and thrive in this community. Over the next several weeks, you will hear about those recommendations and have an opportunity to give us feedback. If you wish, you may also join this group as we begin to move forward with the recommendations.
One of these recommendations is to begin the conversation on these topics. On September 21st at 7:00 p.m. in the RMHS Field House, the Reading Community will be holding a community dialogue on substance abuse and violence prevention. This conversation will continue on October 6th at 7:00 p.m. in the RMHS Fine and Performing Arts Center when the RCASA annual meeting will be held. At that meeting, the biannual results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a key set of data used to assist us in making decisions to support our youth, will be presented. We will then hold a third session on October 18 (time and location to be determined) to address the concerns raised in the first two sessions. These three sessions will allow the community to express their concerns, brainstorm possible solutions, and hear some of the initiatives that are already underway.
It is also important for our community to be proactive when they observe incidents involving any form of risky behavior. We need to teach our children and our students that it is okay to share information when one of their peers is at risk. One of the comments that has been frequently mentioned over the last few weeks is that so many people often know what is going on in the lives of some of the at-risk young adults, but are reluctant to come forward—even though they realize that the behaviors they’re witnessing may be extremely dangerous. It is important to speak up and notify the proper officials what is going on in the community. One way to do this in the schools is to talk to school administrators, guidance counselors, school psychologists, teachers, or a trusted adult. Recently, the Reading Police Department initiated a new anonymous “Text a Tip” program to help the community give information to the police. It is important for all of us to feel like we can report information when we see it. If we don’t, we may regret that we never did.
The Reading Public Schools looks forward to these community conversations aimed at identifying programs, policies, and resources which will support our at risk students. We can and will play a leadership role in addressing what has become a growing problem in suburbs all across this country. It is time to recognize that our community has a problem and begin to work together as a community to solve this problem. The overall well-being of our youth and the vitality of our community are at stake.