Douglas County’s Sagewood Middle School tackles vaping with restorative justice, moves away from suspensions

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — As more and more children start vaping, school districts nationwide are trying to find ways to combat the issue. The Douglas County School District is working on a more unique approach in which the focus is on education rather than just punishment.

A pilot program will soon begin at Sagewood Middle School. Administrators at the school are being trained on restorative justice. Principal Ben D’Ardenne is on a mission to more effectively help students make healthy decisions.

“We’re intervening now to ensure that [substance use] doesn’t continue,” D’Ardenne said.

Starting as early as late October, Sagewood students caught vaping or drinking alcohol will not automatically be handed a suspension. Experts say the punishment is doing nothing to change the behavior of students. Instead, there will be community service, a focus on problem-solving conversations and a commitment to discover why a student is making bad choices.

Student leaders at Sagewood told FOX31 their classmates are already engaged in a group-focused, healing culture.

The newer approach to addressing youth substance use in Douglas County is spearheaded by the Tri-County Health Department and a coalition of mental health experts, law enforcement and faith-based groups. The organization is called the Douglas County Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.

“We want to strategize together as to what the best solution is for our youth,” said Steve Martinez with Tri-County Health. “Kids are actually being screened to identify where their level of risk lies.”

Each case is unique. That means adults must be prepared to find the best solution for each child traveling down the road toward addiction.

“We’re looking at all options,” D’Ardenne explained. “Everything is on the table.”

Tri-County Health says the pilot program at Sagewood Middle School will be evaluated to determine the success of the approach.

“Our intention is to hopefully replicate this in other schools,” Martinez said.

To be clear, suspensions are still possible for certain cases. However, that punishment will no longer be the go-to option at Sagewood Middle School.

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