Helping troubled students earns honor for teacher


A Liberty High School teacher has won top honors from a professional association for her work as a member of a team of faculty members that helps students who might be headed toward drug and alcohol abuse.

Joanne Neil, who teaches home economics at Liberty, was named 1995 Person of the Year this month by the Maryland Student Assistance Program Professional Association.

"Even I am awed. There are so many people involved who could have won it, I got it for the whole team," she said.

Mrs. Neil works with teachers, administrators, guidance counselors and drug counselors in an effort to reduce drug and alcohol use by students. They call themselves the "A-team," short for assistance team.

The program started in 1988 with 10 schools participating. Seven years later, 250 schools across the state have teams trained by the program.

Her group focuses on being aware of warning signs that indicate a student might be experimenting with drugs and alcohol, Mrs. Neil said. The signs include changes in appearance, new friends and lowered academic performance.

Florence Oliver, assistant principal at Liberty and chairwoman of the A-team, said the team monitors a range of signs but that the "primary focus is on how it affects academics."

When a student has been referred to the group by a teacher, student or parent, a few members of the group hold an informal meeting with the student and parents. Team members start the meeting by trying to rule out substance abuse as a cause, rather than entering with accusations.

"This is not a disciplinary team; it is a helping team," Mrs. Neil explained.

Ms. Oliver agreed, saying, "Some philosophies in other aspects of society think there should be a punitive approach taken to kids with drug and alcohol problems. This program has a therapeutic approach."

If the students or the parents deny the problem during the initial informal meeting, the group meets formally with the parents and the student.

"The intervention starts out as an informal conversation with the parents and the student to focus on the problem that the student is having and possible solutions," Mrs. Neil said.

The school groups are not involved in counseling or diagnosing the students. Members simply monitor the students' behavior in school and are involved in the initial intervention.

Team members are required to attend training sessions that are upgraded every year. They are not trained to counsel or diagnose specific problems, but they encourage students to be assesed by professionals.

The team also helps when the student returns to school, monitoring behavior to ensure that the student is doing what counselors have prescribed.

Mrs. Neil said alcohol and other drugs present a bigger problem than they did in the past and that "alcohol is a bigger problem than drugs."

She said the problem at Liberty High is not overwhelming but that it merits the attention of the faculty.

"As schools across the country go, our problem is not that great. But it is enough of one to need help," she said.

Mrs. Neil was nominated for the Person of the Year award by Joanne Hayes, coordinator of student assistance programs for the county schools and a member of the Liberty team.

Mrs. Neil "really listens to what going on . . . and she excels in making sure that the group knows whats going on," Ms. Hayes said.

She also credited Mrs. Neil with encouraging cohesiveness among team members. "She is a consensus builder of the group," Ms. Hayes said.

Mrs. Neil said she was pleased to receive the award because it recognized someone who is not normally in the limelight.

"It recognizes someone who is in the trenches day in and day out," she said. "I hadn't done anything glamorous to receive the award."

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