by David Hermanson, Staff Writer, June 2022
Of all the topics—and there are many—that The Nobleman has difficulty covering, students’ use of illicit substances is one of the most difficult on which to report. Due to the stigma associated with drug consumption, as well as the potential for disciplinary intervention, it is nearly impossible to obtain information on current alleged substance-abuse culture at Nobles in a presentable format despite its inarguable presence within the school.
Moreover, in part because of the inherent criminality of teenage drug use, specifically underage drinking, the Administration has made it impossible for any formal research to be conducted on the student body without forcing The Nobleman to disclose from where, and from whom, it obtained its information, even though numerous unnamed students and even members of The Nobleman staff ~may~ have personal stories regarding the use of such substances.
As a result of such restrictions, all interviews for this article were conducted with former—that is, graduated—students anonymously.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use or addiction, please contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information or support.
According to The Atlantic in an article detailing drinking habits of Americans, “since the turn of the millennium, alcohol consumption has risen steadily, in a reversal of its long decline throughout the 1980s and ’90s.” While this trend has been markedly slower—and in some cases reversed—in certain segments of the American population, Massachusetts has struggled to drop its underage drinking rates significantly.
“Nearly 29 percent of Massachusetts minors age 12-20 consume alcohol,” according to research collected and analyzed by American Addiction Centers. Perhaps more worrisome, an article by the Boston Herald adds, “The Bay State also leads the nation in underage binge drinking, which is classified as consuming four or more drinks in one sitting. Over 19 percent of Massachusetts minors reported binge drinking during the 2016-2017 research period.”
For reference, that research period was a month.
At Nobles, according to graduates, we do not escape these statistics. Students drink, and given the testimony provided by those same graduates, they do not always do so in a manner that would be judged as responsible.
When asked for their opinions on the topic, one graduate from the class of 2020 remarked, “I’ve seen girls stumbling around and out of people’s basements drinking straight out of bottles of vodka. I don’t think that would be defined as responsible drinking.” Granted, the graduate continued, “It’s not an every weekend kind of thing. I don’t think that’s the vibe we have at Nobles.”
So what is the “vibe”—to use the graduates’ words—of drinking culture at Nobles? To what extent are students drinking, and how often? While these questions can not be directly answered by current students, we can find clues, again, in the words of those who have recently left the Nobles community..
Another graduate summed up what they felt drinking culture at Nobles was when they said, “I think that Nobles kids are responsible but I also know some social circles do it more than others. Some people go really crazy.” They continued, “I think people drink more often around, like, the end of the school year and like, prom. Graduation is a big time too and just random, random, weekends in January or MLK weekend”
Given these descriptions, it looks like most Nobles students still manage to keep their work in order, even if they do drink on occasion, but given even the slightest prevalence of known alcohol abuse amongst teens in the school, it begs the question, at what point should the school Administration “turn the other cheek” so to speak, and when should it get involved?
Head of Upper School Micheal Denning, when interviewed on the topic of overall substance abuse, said, ““Over the years, we’ve done some research. We’ve done some survey work of students. I think most recently was a couple years ago […] Might have been three or something like that.” He added, “My recollection was that at that time there was more alcohol use amongst students than overall drug use […] The incidence of the number of students that were disclosing that they were using was actually quite low. The incidence of alcohol was higher, but it wasn’t as prevalent across grades and it wasn’t as great a number as some people would think. It was actually a small percentage of the older classes.”
Later, Denning reiterated this point while referencing the same study. He said, “The prevalence of the drugs were much lower than I think any of us might have imagined given what the national data was saying, and even the prevalence of alcohol was less than I might have thought given what we understand of teen culture.” But not unexpectedly, the culture of drinking, regardless of how frequent, has resulted in moments of regret and hurt for many. One graduate said, “I know that many Nobles students that I have talked to have had bad experiences with other people where they felt uncomfortable or unsafe because of the way that they or other people were behaving due to the influence of substances.”
In forming their stance on when to get involved, the administrators acknowledged this.
Denning said, “In our discipline process we have tiers of offense. A tier-four offense is possible expulsion. Tier one is a reprimand from a teacher […] The reason why we have those is to try to be consistent without having what I would describe as a mandatory sentencing. We don’t want to do that because context matters. Intent matters. There’s a lot of different factors that go into an investigation of a possible discipline situation.”
Denning went on to explain that when handling disciplinary cases, especially those in regard to substances, the main priority is students’ overall safety and the safety of others.
“Alcohol use and concerns about it have moved much more into the realm of counseling, in part because we don’t want to drive students away from asking for help. If somebody’s having a hard time or a problem, but students think they’re gonna get into some kind of big trouble, they might not come and talk to an adult and ask for help […] I want you to feel like, okay, If I go to Mr. Denning he’s only going to be helpful.”
However, there is a line that cannot be crossed. “Now if a student is coming into school intoxicated, we have a different kind of challenge. We can’t have that.”
Yet despite the relatively well prepared responses that the Administration has in preparation for disciplinary events involving alcohol, few graduates could point out examples of times in which they felt the Administration spent ample time or effort educating them on the topic of underage drinking.
When reflecting on the topic of substance abuse education at Nobles, one graduate said, “I don’t think there was anything really to inform us. Frankly, I don’t really remember much education at all. I remember there was once a super ineffective scare-tactic type presentation on vaping, but other than that I don’t remember anything.”
For people still in the process of completing their Nobles education, this lack of instruction has generally remained true. Save for an educational talk on performance enhancing drugs several years ago, little has been done to inform students on the effects of various damaging substances, especially alcohol.
To address these issues, Denning commented that the school is thinking of implementing changes. He said, “We’re thinking about putting together a regular training as part of the 9th or 10th grade PD program […] Around the physiology, psychology, and sociology of addiction, the science behind it, social and biological, so that you guys are aware of how addiction begins, how alcohol works on the system, and many other drugs too.”
These changes are hopeful. However, in the meantime, the lack of education on alcohol abuse could be having an effect on students. One study on teenage substance abuse education summarized their findings on the effects of alcohol education for students when it said, “The results indicate that the students who received the alcohol education knew more about alcohol than the controls. In addition, the educational intervention was found to have influenced the self-reported last consumption of alcohol and maximum consumption, with the ‘educated’ youngsters generally exhibiting more restrained behavior.”
Given that according to graduates, when students are forced to grapple with the pressures of their competitive environment and seek to relieve stress, they turn to illicit substances for support, as well as these facts, it follows that proper education would be a logical step that should be taken by the school.
It is well known that early drinking correlates with future addiction. In one study by the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism, for example, it was found that, “In general, each additional year earlier than 21 that a respondent began to drink, the greater the odds that he or she would develop alcohol dependence at some point in life. While one quarter of all drinkers in the survey started drinking by age 16, nearly half—46 percent—of drinkers who developed alcohol dependence began drinking at age 16 or younger.”
Of course, when seeking to educate minors, administrators should keep in mind that preachy, scare-centric, talks are altogether unhelpful and will likely antagonize students. But regardless, having future talks and discussions or announcement of resources about underage drinking could help prevent future problems.
While it is arguably impossible to stop this behavior—as one other graduate put it, “I just don’t think that’s realistic”—one would hope that more could be done in the future to protect Nobles students from behavior that may harm themselves or others.