Auburn Middle School officials plan to start offering Alateen meetings this year for students whose lives have been touched by alcohol.

At Lewiston High School, new staff hires are getting trained on suicide prevention, what to watch for, how to react.

And at the middle school in Lewiston, the health curriculum is being tweaked in response to a statewide survey that flagged some troubling issues for Western Maine.

Suicidal thoughts and the use of alcohol and marijuana among students are worrisome but they’re not new: School officials say they’ve been watching the trends and trying to respond.

“The numbers have definitely been alarming to us,” said Auburn Middle School Principal Jim Hand. “We’ve been trying to put a ton of programs in place, especially where we’re such a high poverty school.”

In January, the Maine Department of Education released the 2013 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey with students’ responses on everything from how much fruit they eat to whether they’ve tried alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, chewing tobacco or huffed paint to get high.

Auburn and Lewiston are two of the 17 schools carved out in the report under the public health district “Western Maine.” The survey indicated the district had some of the highest rates in the state of student involvement in drinking, drugs, sex and gambling. It had some of the lowest rates of students responding that they feel supported and loved at home.

At his school, Hand said there’s a health center, a nurse practitioner, social workers and guidance counselors who are “constantly trying to figure out how we help get access to different mental health programs for drug and alcohol programs for families and kids.”

One idea was to start the Alateen meetings, which are generally for children with substance-abuse issues in their families. It’s associated with Alcoholics Anonymous.

“You can’t control that, but what can you control?” Hand said. “Obviously, alcoholism is in any community, but when you get into high-poverty situations people don’t have a lot of resources. Our goal is to try to help at the very least the kids, give them as many resources as possible.”

Hand and Shawn Chabot, Lewiston Middle School’s principal, both pointed to softening attitudes toward marijuana — medical marijuana is legal in Maine, Portland recently OK’d recreational use — trickling down to students and being behind an increase in those numbers.

More Western Maine middle school students reported using marijuana in 2013 than in 2011, and fewer said their parents would think it was wrong if they found out they’d smoked it.

In Androscoggin County, cigarette and alcohol use have come down over the years, said Lewiston schools Substance Abuse Coordinator/Counselor Vicky Wiegman, but “with marijuana, boy, do we have our hands full.”

“If I sit and ask any kid in Lewiston High School or Middle School, ‘Which is worse for you, cigarettes or marijuana?’ they will answer, ‘Oh, definitely cigarettes. They’re really bad for you,'” Wiegman said.

Healthy Androscoggin is planning a town hall forum this spring involving parents, law enforcement and the medical community “to get some conversations going,” she said. “I feel like there’s a foregone conclusion in the community, ‘Hey, it’s going to be legalized, anyway, what can I do about it?’ What we learned with the whole issue around teen smoking is we can absolutely do something about it. Underage drinking, we can absolutely do something about it.”

This spring, Lewiston High School is also training new hires and employees hired last year around the issue of suicide prevention. The last staff-wide training was in 2011.

It’s part of “just getting a better system of, ‘OK, we’re orienting you to the building, now we’re orienting you to what we do when we suspect a student may be thinking about harming themselves,'” Wiegman said. “It just becomes as routine as any other procedure.”

Chabot said schools are always trying to get messages across to students around social issues, always thinking of different approaches, but schools alone can’t be the answer.

“I feel like, as an institution, K through 12, we try our very best to educate our youth about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, particularly marijuana and cigarette smoking,” Chabot said. “That’s only one part of the potential solution. The other part as strong or stronger is parents stepping up and doing their part as well.”

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