Students Under Pressure, Under Fire, Under Circumstance: A Multi-Part Series About Local Youth at Risk, Part 2

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This series addresses the environment, actions, and consequences of Woodlands area youth acting on and reacting to pressures external and self-created, and their resulting responses that adversely affect them and those around them. If you are – or know of – a local youth in need of assistance, Woodlands Online encourages you to seek help from the proper resources discussed in these articles. While the quotes of others are directly transcribed, the views expressed by the author of this series may not necessarily represent those of Woodlands Online or its staff.]

Part 2: An Interview with Retired CISD Guidance & Counseling Expert Denise Cipolla

THE WOODLANDS, TX – The sadness, pain and uneasiness of discussing addiction issues is compounded when you add in the impact the condition is having on our youth. Nine out of ten addictions start in the teens, and 13 is the average age for someone trying drugs and/or alcohol for the first time.

As dangerous and pervasive as the effects of drugs on our underage students are, it is shocking to learn that there is no national program in schools to educate youth about drug and alcohol abuse.

This reporter learned these facts and more while sitting down with Denise Cipolla, who recently retired as the Conroe Independent School District’s leadership and advisory coordinator. Ms. Cipolla had spent a full quarter of a century as a consultant at CISD; seven years at headquarters and the 18 years before that at Woodlands High School.

As a consultant to Prestige, Cipolla has seen and experienced every aspect of the aftermath of addiction and troubled youth. Unfortunately, one of the last incidents she had to deal with before retiring at the end of the school year was the tragic death of two TWHS students related to fentanyl at the time of her graduation.

“The unique needs of students and educators in dealing with extraordinary circumstances can vary widely due to the size and scope of CISD,” she said, citing the 65 campuses, 348 square miles and 68,000 students that comprise the school district. “The Woodlands in particular are often seen by outsiders as being in a ‘bubble’, but that’s certainly not the case. Even for this masterfully planned community, problems like addiction, suicide, and food insecurity exist in every zone.”

When asked about the seemingly growing local issues plaguing our students, Cipolla had a straight answer. “In short, historical and stereotypical ‘high school’ issues hit our kids much earlier these days,” she said. A key factor here is the global reach of social media.

“Every day his reach is growing,” she said. “Social media has changed the world, for better and for worse. We used to be better at protecting our children, but now even adults face the same issues that come with anonymous mass communication.”

Cipolla points to the concept of “FOMO” — fear of missing out — as one reason why our youth are so dependent on social media. “A plain old day used to be a good day; But today, thanks to the media and social media, everyday life has become too manic – it’s all or nothing.” Add to this concept the trope of “helicopter parents” who want to protect their children while ironically protecting their children at the same time allow traditional adult decisions to be made on a daily basis, there is a greater recipe for tragedy.

“There is a difference between protecting our children from outside influences through their own sloppy parenting skills and protecting them from anything and everything that could possibly offend them. Children need to be sure that life doesn’t go our way. If they don’t learn that lesson, they won’t be prepared to deal with what used to be everyday problems as they grow up.”

For this reason, one of the key support systems in the CISD Counseling Department focuses on resilience, coping strategies, and self-advocacy. “Even in elementary school, we give them the tools to be strong.”

Indeed, a school district of the size and scope of the CISD must be very conscious of both age-related, need-based and geographic needs. Cipolla’s department has made full use of the Comprehensive Guidance Module, an individualized, child-focused program that includes crisis response.

“All our consultants have a master’s degree in consulting. Last school year we had 171 counselors; In this new school year we will have ten additional advisors. All of them have been trained to meet the needs of students, parents and staff.” Surprisingly, adults without children can also take advantage of the department’s services.

There is always at least one counselor at each school, with larger campuses increasing (For example, Woodlands High School hosts 14 counselors). In the last seven years, the number of consultants has grown by 30 percent.

“Our goal is to stay constantly connected to the community at large. Many of our CISD departments work together – including our nursing, counseling, public relations and administration departments – in a very active sense to plan and discuss student welfare.

Returning to the topic of social media, Cipolla emphasizes how CISD works diligently to overcome its challenges and more toxic aspects. “A key difference between previous generations and this one is that these family generations lived in the same area until relatively recently. Now, with immediate global reach, we’re physically farther from our support systems.” She credits the department’s programs and staff. “We emphasize that parents should stay connected with their children; Social media should be more of an event than a day-to-day situation, and even with parental controls and other tech limitations at home, kids can be exposed to them from just about anywhere outside the home. We encourage parents to educate their children about the family value system, rather than just being exposed to it virtually.”

Even if there were no lingering concerns about the impact of social media, the “personal” use of drugs in the real world is still ubiquitous. “We are in the midst of a tragic epidemic of fentanyl and other opioids,” Cipolla said. “And there is nowhere near a strong enough awareness of how deadly they are. The students – the children – are incapable of always even knowing what they are eating. The severity and lethality of these drugs has increased exponentially in the recent past, making them doubly insane as the drug dealers literally kill their source of income.”

The frustration she feels at the ease of addiction is evident in Cipolla’s words. “CISD has held several addiction prevention and mental health awareness classes and very few parents attend. There are clear connections between mental health, emotional health and emotional maturity; Strong emotional health can prevent many mental health problems by allowing a person to turn failure into strength.”

Mental and emotional health issues range from addiction to self-harm and suicide. “We’ve invited speakers – everyone from medical professionals discussing research into brain damage from addiction to athletes who have ruined their own careers because of addiction issues – and we’d love to see more parents attend. We must encourage people to come forward and take the mandatory suicide prevention training that is held for our employees each year. We need to overcome the consequences of these issues of self-harm—whether through addiction or suicide or other self-harm—by engaging entire families and the community at large.”

Despite the frustration, Cipolla prepared to leave her department and face her retirement with the knowledge that there were still great resources and strong relationships to continue to address the issues. “Matt Blakelock, the CISD Chief of Police, is a phenomenal presence who is very well trained in mental health response and Constable Ryan Gable provides great training too,” she said. “The people who remain in the department – including our mental health consultant Lindsey Taylor, our director of care Barbara Robertson and my successor Mamie Miller Prejean – are incredibly dedicated and professional and willing to keep the department running smoothly. I am very proud that every consultant is committed and involved.”

Additionally, Cipolla has nothing but good things to say about the resource and encourages parents to take advantage of the information provided. We can solve these problems for the benefit of our students by getting involved.”

In the next episode of Students Under Pressure, Under Fire, Under the Circumstances, Lt. Scott Spencer and Sheriff Rand Henderson of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office discuss the legal ramifications of illegal drug use and addiction.

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