Next year Riverside-Brookfield High School will make a more concentrated effort to educate students about the dangers of substance abuse.

The District 208 school board has made increasing student awareness of the dangers of substance abuse a goal for the next school year, and it appears likely that RB will hire a private substance abuse counselor, who will maintain a regular presence in the school next year.

RB has been in talks with The Pillars Community Services, an organization based in Hickory Hills, with offices in LaGrange Park, which provides counseling and treatment programs for those with substance abuse problems and does preventative education.

The school and Pillars are close to finalizing an agreement that would place a Pillars staffer in the school next year for 18 hours a week, according to Merry Beth Sheets, the director of addiction services, mental health and sexual assault at Pillars said at a substance abuse forum held at RB on May 23.

“The school will be contracting with us three days a week, 18 hours a week,” said Sheets. “It’s a done deal except for the formality of getting it inked and signed.”

While RB Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann admitted that the school was contemplating such a move, he stopped short of saying the contract was all but signed.

“It is something that we are seriously considering,” said Baldermann. “We’re still looking at a few options. The goal is to address substance abuse by students and help our students make healthy choices.”

If Pillars is hired the cost to the district would be around $20,000, Baldermann estimated.

While the school is shining a brighter light on the problem of drug and alcohol use by students, the turnout from students and parents was light at the May 23 forum.

Organizers of the substance abuse forum were disappointed at the turnout, which included just six parents of RB students and a total crowd of about 30 people. Half of those were from organizations that deal with substance abuse.

Part of the reason for the light turnout at the forum, hosted by Sheets and Sara Moscato, the associate director of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, may have a been a lack of advance notice. A few days before the forum, RB mailed out fliers about the event to all parents of juniors and seniors.

Linda Lavery, the head of the Student Services at RB, noted that while the fliers were mailed on May 18 and 19, giving parents little time to plan to attend the forum. She also noted that the school did not run the forum.

“This was hosted at our school,” said Lavery. “This was not run by our school.”

Still, District 208 school board member Laura Hruska, who attended the forum, was also disappointed with the turn out.

“People are worried about drug abuse or alcohol abuse in this district, and then they can’t even come to a meeting,” said Hruska. “There really should be more parents here. It’s embarrassing.”

One student who spoke at the event estimated that around three-quarters of the students at the high school drink alcohol.

“At this high school there is a very, very big drinking problem,” said RB junior Richard Kasper. “I would say that 75 percent of the people drink regularly.”

Kasper is active in Operation Snowball, a group that promotes healthy choices by students.

Baldermann, however, thinks the 75 percent figure is high.

“Do I think that 75 percent of kids try something before graduation, yes,” said Baldermann. “Do I think 75 percent drink regularly? No.”

Lavery agreed with Baldermann.

“That seems like a very, very high number to me,’ she said. “The word on the street with kids is that everybody does it, and that’s not the case.”

A recent anonymous survey of RB freshmen indicated that 30 percent had tried drinking. Baldermann said that that figure likely rises as kids go through high school.

Moscato noted how sweetened “alcopops,” alcohol sweetened to taste more like pop, are being marketed to younger and younger adolescents, especially girls. According to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism survey, girls are binge drinking more than ever before. Twelfth-grade female drinkers are more likely to drink distilled spirits than beer, according to the Center of Alcohol and Youth.

Drugs are also becoming a more serious problem, according to Moscato, with heroin arrests doubling in the suburbs in the last four years.

Baldermann said the district is well aware of these trends and is determined to do what it can to help students resist the temptations of alcohol and drugs.

At RB’s recent prom, held at the Field Museum in Chicago, four students out of 536 were turned away because they arrived under the influence, Baldermann said.

On May 12, a surprise drug search conducted by police K-9 units at the school resulted in the arrest of one student for possession of marijuana. In 2005, Riverside police handed out nine local ordinance citations for cannabis or drug paraphernalia possession and made six felony possession of a controlled substance arrests at the high school.

In 2006, as of mid May, police have already written nine local ordinance violations for cannabis and/or paraphernalia and have two felony drug arrests.