Rhode Island Student Assistance Marks 25 Years Combatting and Preventing Drug Use and Abuse Among Rhode Island Youth

WARWICK, Rhode Island (August 22, 2012) – Since 1987, Rhode Island Student Assistance Services (RISAS) engaged more than 700,000 Rhode Island public school students – more than 35,000 youth annually – in alcohol, tobacco and drug education prevention programs. The organization has embedded specially trained, proactive, student assistance counselors in 44 Rhode Island schools and continues its successful implementation of the nationally-proven Student Assistance Program (SAP) in Rhode Island.

“Today, with marijuana use rising among children and teens, prescription drug abuse increasing at significant rates and teens using medications increasingly more as a means of suicide, we remain steadfast in our mission,” said RISAS founding Executive Director Sarah Dinklage, who continues to serve the agency in this capacity.

The story of RISAS began in 1987, when the Rhode Island General Assembly passed enabling legislation that established a pilot student assistance program launched in seven high schools in Rhode Island focused on prevention and early intervention substance abuse and related problems among students. RISAS was formed to oversee the pilot project.

The Rhode Island Student Assistance Services program is based on a national student assistance program model, Project SUCCESS. Project SUCCESS developer Ellen Morehouse worked with Sarah Dinklage and other Rhode Island leaders to establish the Rhode Island model. In addition to their primary funder, state department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH), the RI Department of Health has been a key partner with RISAS and has funded RISAS to implement statewide tobacco prevention, teen dating violence and most recently suicide prevention initiatives.

The original language of the Student Assistance Program provided for “a mechanism to intervene with students who had or were developing drug or alcohol problems; to provide a broad-brush service which also addressed mental health, familial, and other related problems; to improve school attendance, reduce the drop-out rate, and reduce disciplinary action in the high school; to prevent the development of alcohol and drug abuse among high school students; to reduce the incidence of alcohol and drug abuse problems among students; and to demonstrate to school districts that providing alcohol and drug abuse prevention and intervention service in the school is cost-effective and enables the school to more effectively carry out its job of educating students.”

RISAS is now the leader of student assistance programming in Rhode Island and works closely with other student assistance providers serving students and their families in 21 middle schools and 23 high schools in 19 school districts throughout the state. RISAS provides early intervention services annually to over 5000 youth at-risk for substance abuse stemming from home, school, and community stressors. In addition, the program enhances the resiliency of children and teens affected by substance abuse in their families. According to the January, 2000 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, 1 out of 4 youth have been exposed to substance abuse in their homes.

The organization has spearheaded intensive peer leadership programs like Varsity Athletes Against Substance Abuse (VAASA), in which 175 varsity athletes annually pledge to remain alcohol and drug-free and serve as role models to middle school students.

“The twenty-fifth anniversary is less about RISAS as an organization and more about the evolution of the program since the pilot was launched,” said Dinklage. “As an agency, we have continued to stay on top of, and in many cases, ahead of the trends, and we have put valuable research into practice. This is what makes our education and prevention programs a success in our schools.”

“Through the coming years, our goals include expansion of the program into new districts, gaining additional research and science behind effective solutions for students, refining strategies, developing new partnerships, influencing policy changes, and maintaining program funding. We have no small task at RISAS, but it is a critical component of our students’ lives and our programs have been instrumental in keeping students focused on building a healthy and successful future.”

Dinklage cites a number of keys to the longevity and success of RISAS. These include specially trained student assistance counselors who, in addition to providing a range of research based prevention and intervention strategies, serve as advisors to school clubs like SADD, VAASA (Varsity Athletes Against Destructive Decision Making), Gay-Straight Alliance, and others. The program is “user friendly” for teens by providing easy access to confidential services in their school. RISAS has the ability to reach teens early on before problems become chronic and severe.

According to Dinklage, the strong on-going support and “ownership” by participating school districts and communities is critical.

RISAS to Hold First-of-its-Kind Conference in October

In keeping with the RISAS mission, and in honor of its 25th anniversary, RISAS will join Honorary Chair U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on October 22, 2012 to host a first-of-its-kind conference, “Staying Ahead of Youth Drug Trends: Educate. Act. Prevent.” The conference will draw 200 health care and mental health workers, community advocates, social workers, law enforcement professionals, educators, government officials, and policymakers to increase their knowledge and build skills relative to their particular roles in preventing substance abuse.

For more information, visit www.risas.org or follow on Facebook at “RI Student Assistance Services”

Editorial Contact:
Jennifer Toone Corrigan
In Toone Communication

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Avatar About the Author: The Rhode Island Small Business Journal is a printed monthly magazine and an online resource for the aspiring and start-up entrepreneur and small business owner.

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