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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Island Voices
Special-ed solution requires drug tests

By Marcy Brown
Director of outpatient services, Bobby Benson Center

I have been reading article after article in our local papers regarding the millions of dollars spent on "special-needs" children.

It is important to have in place a system of identifying and assisting those students who need special consideration because they are having difficulty adjusting or performing successfully in school. But the current process used by the Department of Education, however well intentioned, is misguided.

I have worked for the last 20 years with youth who have special needs and have some insight into how the state can save millions of dollars by rethinking its process of identification of the youth who are certified as special-education students.

Elementary-age children may reflect emotional or learning disabilities that could be related to mental health issues or home environment. With older students (those in intermediate or secondary schools), the initial focal point should be whether or not they are using alcohol, marijuana or other mood-altering drugs. Once this is ruled out, then it becomes reasonable to look deeper.

The age of onset for youth experimenting and developing a pattern of substance use is 12 to 13 years old. O'ahu's intermediate and high schools are teeming with youth who have found the entertainment and relief that substances can bring. However, substance use causes a lot of the problems that students are exhibiting and being referred to specialists for. It causes chronic truancies, refusal to follow rules, refusal or inability to complete assignments, harassment of other students, belligerence, depression, lack of motivation and aggression toward others.

There is in place a system for identifying and assisting students with these behavioral problems. These are the "special-needs" children. So how does the Department of Education miss the boat with these kids? By responding to requests for special-education certification evaluation without having a formal process of screening for substance abuse first. This is completely backward.

A proactive approach to what's really the primary problem for many of our kids would go a long way toward stopping this burgeoning population of "special-ed kids," and it would also put a tourniquet on the financial hemorrhage that is draining the state's coffers.

Marcy Brown is director of outpatient services for the Bobby Benson Center, a residential treatment program for adolescents with substance dependencies and mental health problems.