By Anne Stanton
Zero tolerance for drug distribution.
Those two words have proved chilling for the 10 students expelled from
the Traverse City public school district so far this year.
Although the policy sounds harsh, many of these students have come to
consider it one of the luckiest breaks in their lives. Thats because
most go on to a special TCAPS expulsion school headed up by Danial
Oberski, a teacher who himself was a troubled kid.
Trust me, I rarely get through expulsion hearings without tears in my
eyes. Good kids do stupid things, said Glenn Solowiej, Traverse City
East Middle School principal.
The only thing that pulls me through this process is we have an
opportunity for students to continue their education with Dan Oberski,
who is just a brilliant guy. Were not turning our backs on them,
letting them go home and watch I Love Lucy reruns for 180 days.
Oberski runs a small Off Campus Education Program in the back of
Michigan Worksa large area blocked off with 12-foot high powder blue
sectionals. While unemployed adults try to find jobs in the front, 15
students work at school in the back under Oberskis spirited
For eight hours, they eat, play, and study together, rarely getting
out of each others sight. The kids say it feels like a family.
Oberski is young, with short, graying hair. At night he teaches
biology at Northwestern Michigan College. In fact, some of his former
students sit in his class. He immodestly says hes NMCs best biology
teacher. But you wont find anyone whod disagree. Stephanie Long,
Traverse City West High School assistant principal, said shed like to
clone a hundred of him. Hes that good.
In fact, he was working toward a doctorate degree in biology when he
was recruited to direct and teach this new program.
Oberski works with students from 12 to 18. That means preparing about
16 lesson plans a day. Most of the kids have a learning disability, so
he first tries to detect and patch the holes in their knowledge base.
In addition to schoolwork, the students do community service, working
at Goodwill, Toys for Tots, and maintaining trails in area woods. A
trip to a nursing home changed the life of one girl, who went on to
manage a nursing homes recreational program. She saw people who
needed something, and she had something to offer.
ONE OF THEM
Today Oberski is wearing a gray Oakland University sweat shirt, his
alma mater, in keeping with casual Friday. The teens dont fear him,
and he doesnt fear them, he said.
I was one of them. I was one of the worst kids in high school and a
very angry teenager. I got drummed out of Saint Francis and
practically drummed out of Traverse City Senior High, when it was just
one high school. I went to Beaver Island Lighthouse, where they sent
really troubled kids. They sent us away to an island to live, to get
an education as far away as possible. They sent 22 of us; only 12 of
us made it through without getting thrown out.
The students in Oberskis program are similarly hell-bent on failure
when they arrive, but most dont. Oberski has only expelled 16 out of
94 students; two reapplied and made it. Often the ones who dont
succeed are addicted to drugs and need rehab, or they just couldnt
lose the attitude, Oberski said.
Oberski said his own life changed after reading the Biography of
Malcolm X; he gives it and other inspiring books to other students
when he sees the right opening.
I pay very close attention to every one of these kids, to every
question. They can contact me at home. Im open to them, open to the
kids. I dont think theres any artificial barrier of who I am as a
person, and who they are as people. It makes teaching and respect much
Authority is an illusion, he explained.
I want respect. If someone talks back or is rude, they know
immediately thats improper and unacceptable behavior. But they dont
respond to me if I admonish them. We dont do much yelling. I usually
joke to defuse the situation. From there, we talk about it. Lets not
do that again. It tends to go away.
Theres lots of negotiating. Some kids have problems with focus. We
make deals, we barter. Give me 10 minutes, and Ill give you a five
THE KIDS VIEW
Casey is now a senior at Traverse City West High School, a graduate
of the expulsion program. She went there in ninth grade, and has just
completed an internship with Oberski. I still come once a day from 1
to 3 p.m., even if Im not obliged to be there.
Casey was expelled as a ninth grader for giving her moms sleeping
pills to her friends. I took them to school because I was brilliant.
I thought it was funny to be slaphappy. My friends wanted to try it,
and I gave it to them.
She remembers the pill fuzzing her brain and getting taken to the
emergency room because she was incoherent. She also remembers walking
into Oberskis room with a defensive attitude.
All the kids the way they lookedthey could have been bad-ass. So I
had to present myself to be as bad-ass as them. So everyone was
shelled up the first day. But that quickly changed. Dans really
outspoken hes one of the most brilliant and charismatic persons
Ive ever met. He really does care. He sees himself in everybody.
Oberski recreates a family of sorts for the kids, many who lack a
father figure who will pay good attention to them.
Not to be categorical, but a lot of kids get into trouble because
they have a bad family life. Divorce and drug problems, a lot of them
are in poverty. One kid moved here from California, and his dad
considered himself a gangster. Theyre really needy for a family.
Casey said shes considering college, but shes not sure she has what
it takes to be a Dan.
You burn out easily. Its stressful. and it takes a strong person.
The first time you meet these kids, they want to act like the class
clown and get at you. Until they get stabilized, its really
difficult. You see so many home problems. A student will get pregnant
and will get in trouble while they are there. Kicking them out of the
expulsion school has to take so much. Theres nowhere for them to go,
although they can reapply the next year after theyre terminated. To
have control over such a young persons life takes a lot.
When I was there, we had five to seven kids got expelled from the
expulsion school. One spit in a girls cup and lied about it for a
week. One wouldnt pick up a piece of paper and decided to make a big
deal. He had a history of being defiant for no reason. At that point,
if you cant fix them, if theyre going to cause distractions and be
ungrateful, you have to know where to cut the line. And Dan draws the
line of what he allows.
A group of four students met after school to talk about Oberskis program.
Will, a ninth grader at West, said the close instruction has made all
the difference. Dan doesnt let us do the problems ourselves until
hes sure we can do it ourselves.
Brittney was expelled last year as a seventh grader at West Middle
School for selling an Adderall pill. I decided not to take it. She
had also been selling her boyfriends muscle relaxant and anti-anxiety
pills. After she was expelled, she gave her Adderall pills to another
friend, and then he was expelled.
The kids say that when one kid gets caught, theres a chain reaction
with text messages revealing other buyers and sellers. Nick, a West
Senior High sophomore, said, in retrospect, it was stupid to use
texting. Now hes learning new lessons: Dont get high and do your
Ironically, once the kids are punished at expulsion school, they are
reluctant to go back to their regular school. But Casey said it hasnt
been that bad.
I dont know if its a coincidence, but I matured while I was there.
I felt things got straightened out the second I stepped in there. Dan
understood me and helped me find my strengths--arguing and
over-intellectualizing things. Im pretty good at math. He gets the
indescribable things about people.
Next week, Oberski writes a column about how to handle teens,
difficult or otherwise.
Pills can Kill
Keep prescription medicine locked away from kids
By Anne Stanton
Area school principals are noticing the same pattern: kids are
increasingly selling prescription drugs at school.
A record 10 students were kicked out of Traverse City Area Public
Schools this year, seven from West Senior High School alone. The
majority had sold prescription pills to other kids. Half of those
expelled were ninth graders or younger, according to statistics
provided by the school district. (They are attending an expulsion
school: see accompanying article).
Getting expelled from TCAPS could be as involved as running a drug
ring to giving away a single Adderall pill to a friend who wants
better focus for a test that day. The school has zero tolerance for
drug distribution. Any first-time offender will be expelled for up to
The Public Schools of Petoskey expelled one student so far this year
for selling marijuana. Benzie Central High School reported six
students were disciplined for drug and/or alcohol offenses, but none
Wee seen a lot of prescription drugs, Ritalin, Vicodin, the whole
works, said Pete Olson, principal of Benzie Central High school. We
had a mother complain about her son stealing Vicodin. Honestly, a kid
will bring some pills in and give it to another kid without knowing
what it is, and the kid will take it. Its all about peer pressure.
Yet the wrong pill in the wrong body can wreak tragic consequences,
said Chris Davis, TCAPS executive director of human resources.
It may be effective for one, but toxic to another. We cant risk it, she said.
Prescription drug addiction at any age can cause problems for any
familylying, cheating, stealing, not to mention the damaging health
effects, said Pat Nestor, manager of Munsons Drug and Alcohol
But its frightening, he said, when teens start taking prescription
pills, particularly pain killers, which can provide a sense of
With prescription painkillers, a patient must increase the dose over
time in order to get the same analgesic effect, he said.
For a kid taking a first time dose of methadone, it can be lethal,
Even Adderall, used to treat attention deficit disorder, can be
deadly, although the incidence is rare. The drugs manufacturer, Shire
Pharmaceuticals, reported the deaths of 12 children taking Adderall or
Adderall XR between 1999 and 2003.
ADDICTION IS HIGH HERE
It appears that the kids behavior is reflecting the adult world.
I would say, statistics reflect what youre hearing. Among the 8,000
people we serve, weve seen a very significant increase in opiate
dependency, and particularly prescription painkillers, Vicodin,
Oxycontin, and Methadone, said Dennis Priess, director of the Northern
Michigan Substance Abuse Services (NMSAS), which provides treatment
dollars for about 8,000 low-income people each year in Northern
Addiction rates are particularly high in Northwest Michigan, from
Grand Traverse to Alpena County, which triggered a media campaign to
urge folks to lock up their medications, Priess said.
The opiate addiction numbers have soared from the mid 1990s, when only
2% of the 8,000 patients served by NMSAS reported an opiate
dependency. In 2009, that number increased tenfold to 22%. Meanwhile,
dependency on marijuana and alcohol has remained relatively steady,
hovering around 15% to 60%, respectively, he said.
Priess says there are multiple reasons for rising prescription
addiction. For one, physicians are now required to aggressively treat
pain by the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals across the
The marketing of pharmaceuticals also plays a role. Theres also a
wide perception that if its a prescription, it cant hurt me, Priess
Priess said that a NMSAS survey shows that middle school is a pivotal
age. A survey asked NMSAS clients, ages 18 to 30, when they started
You can see real clearly the age at which they started on the pills
really jumped between the ages of 12 and 13, he said.
MARIJUANA AND ALCOHOL
Although prescription drugs have raised alarms because of their deadly
potential, marijuana and alcohol remain the most popular drugs among
kids. The use of marijuana is rising as kids become less concerned
about its risks, according to a University of Michigan Monitoring the
Future 2009 survey.
A third of 12th graders said they had used marijuana in the past year,
while only 10 percent say they have taken narcotics such as Vicodin
and Oxycontin. Area schools generally do not expel students for use of
drugs, but suspend them. Most will shorten the suspension if the
students agree to drug education and/or a treatment program.
I like the proactive approach; youre still penalized, but youre
also getting help, said James Kanine, principal of Petoskey Senior
Joe Tibaldi, principal at TC West Senior High School, said the
districts new video cameras are one reason more kids are getting
caught. If one student reports on another, the video will provide
Next year, the district may lose its police liaison officers and some
of its assistant principalsthe people who catch and discipline drug
sellersdue to budget cuts.
More students were expelled from TCAPS so far this year, than in all
of last year (eight). In 2007/2008, six were expelled.
Well just have to work more hours. They already work very long
hours, but thats just the way it is. None of the cuts are in the best
interest of students, Tibaldi said.
But we wanted the cuts in administration to come first. We dont want
to cut programming for kids, classes that theyre interested in.