Arlington, VA

Arlington County launched a new initiative today to address youth substance abuse. Officials say the two-year pilot program, the first of its kind, may eventually become a model for other communities nationwide.

The so-called “Second Chance” program will allow middle and high school students caught with alcohol or marijuana to avoid school suspensions and criminal prosecution. To enter the program, students must be first-time offenders and must have the active participation of their parents or guardians.

Students referred to Second Chance by schools, police, courts or parents will attend an educational, three-day “early intervention” program, as well as a subsequent “booster session.” The time in the program will be considered an excused absence from school. Supporters say that the “second chance” allows students to avoid the negative impacts of school suspensions and other traditional forms of punishment.

“To suspend a student for five or ten days, to have them sitting at home and missing school — maybe their parents are there or maybe they’re not — is not an effective way to deal with someone who’s just getting involved in drugs and alcohol,” said Arlington School Board member Abby Raphael. “We need to intervene, we need education, we need to get the parents involved, and we need to [prevent students from] falling further behind in school.”

The mandatory parental component of the program, Raphael said, is crucial to the program’s success.

“We know that to really be successful in preventing kids from using drugs and alcohol… parents have to be involved,” she said.

Raphael, who spoke alongside County Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes at this morning’s launch event at the Arlington Central Library, said that the program will be closely monitored. If it proves successful, the program may be duplicated elsewhere.

“We’re already having discussions with the Department of Education,” Raphael said. “We absolutely hope that this can be a model for the country.”

The County Board has approved $130,000 in funding for the program’s two-year pilot period. The liquor industry-funded and Arlington-based Century Council contributed an additional $50,000 in funding, while the Arlington READY Coalition provided another $20,000.

Officials expect about 200 kids to go through the program in its first year.

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