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Heather Reilly

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Ward Melville High School. Photo by Greg Catalano

The Three Village Drug & Alcohol Awareness Program will host an open Q&A forum with two guest speakers Thursday, Jan. 25, at The Bates House.

Heather Reilly, certified drug and alcohol counselor for the Three Village Central School District, will be on hand to answer parents’ questions about services provided for students and parents in the Three Village schools.

Also attending the meeting will be Lauren Grady, a private practice clinician and social work investigator for the New York State Department of Health, who works at B.E.S.T. PLLC located in Deer Park. The facility is planning to open another location on Technology Drive in Setauket, tentatively late February or early March.

B.E.S.T. treats those 18 and older and provides counseling for family members who have a loved one addicted to alcohol or drugs. Grady will answer questions regarding the facility coming to the Three Village area. She will discuss the national and local epidemic of substance abuse, the barriers and obstacles present in identifying and receiving treatment, various treatment modalities and options, and the mobilization of resources to reach and treat those afflicted by this issue.

The meeting will be held at 1 Bates Road, Setauket, at 7 p.m. Jan. 25. For more information, call 631-689-7054. To speak confidentially with a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor, call Merrit Hartblay at 516-852-8478.

File photo of Ward Melville by Greg Catalano

The Three Village Central School District is taking a proactive stance to battling drug and alcohol abuse in the community.

In May, residents approved the district’s $204.4 million budget for the 2017-18 academic year, which includes the addition of a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Heather Reilly accepted the position, and sat down with school administrators last week to discuss short-term and long-term plans that not only involve offering one-on-one counseling, but also educational programs in the schools and local area.

Catherine Taldone, director of school and community partnerships, said Reilly will spend one day a week at each of the two junior high schools, and split the rest of the week between Ward Melville High School and the district’s alternative high school, The Three Village Academy. The district is also developing a plan for the counselor to work in conjunction with health class teachers to create a program for sixth-grade students.

Taldone said the time had come to hire someone to address the growing problem.

“In order to help those students and recognize the problems we are seeing in our school district, as well as the problems that are being seen in every school district right now, we felt that it needed and required someone with a specific background and training to address those young people and work as well with families to see if we can make some changes and help some students get the help that they need,” she said in a phone interview.

Heather Reilly has accepted the position of drug and alcohol counselor in the Three Village Central School District. Photo from Heather Reilly

Reilly, a licensed social worker with a master’s degree in forensic psychology, said she has two years of substance abuse counseling, which will be her main focus in the district, along with prevention. She has worked with the Long Island-based nonprofit WellLife Network, which focuses on healthy recovery and wellness, and also has experience conducting screenings for mental health and drug courts. Children can come to the counselor even if a family member or friend is an alcoholic or addict. She said she is looking forward to reaching out to local agencies and developing a program rounded in research-based practices.

“It’s a very proactive approach as opposed to waiting for there to be an even bigger issue,” she said of the district’s decision to hire a counselor. “I’m very excited to be part of a new program — something that we can really get off the ground and really impact the community in a positive way.”

Reilly will also be available to families and faculty, and will be educating teachers, who she describes as “the first line of defense,” about the signs to look for and trends that sometimes include slang words to refer to drugs.

Reilly said treating children with substance abuse problems is different than working with adults, and it’s important for students to have someone they can trust and receive reliable information from.

“I think with children or adolescents, there’s less thought of the consequences in the future,” she said. “Their brains really aren’t developed in that way yet. It’s really important to come at students in a very nonjudgmental way. It’s normal to have these thoughts of curiosity and experimentation, but you really need to give them knowledge so they can make the most informed decisions. You’d be really surprised how little students know about the long-term consequences.”

The local problem with drugs is something Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum said he never shied away from. In 2014, he was trained to administer Narcan, a medicine used to reverse the effects of opioids. After his experience, he had the high school staff trained in its use. Now, all secondary school teachers and nurses in the district have also been trained. Three Village aims to have elementary school teachers qualified in the near future.

Baum said more than 10 years ago there was a substance counselor through BOCES, but the position was removed. He is pleased that the district has now hired someone that can focus on the drug and alcohol issues facing the community. Both Baum and Reilly said another problem is vaping, which is the practice of inhaling or exhaling vapors produced by an electronic cigarette, a device that can also hold marijuana.

Although the principal said he has not seen an increase in the number of kids addicted or seeking help, and has never had to have Narcan administered within the confines of the school buildings in the area, he thought the hiring of a counselor was still a necessary move.

“Just like any other suburban area, this is an unfortunate fact of life that exists no matter where you are,” Baum said. “It’s not unique to Three Village, it’s not unique to Suffolk County. This happens across the state and across the nation. We have a problem and I want to do whatever we can to help and tackle and address this issue.”

Cheryl Pedisich, the district’s superintendent, echoed Baum’s sentiments.

“The Three Village Central School District takes a proactive and steadfast approach to educating our students and residents about the dangers of drug and alcohol use, and has dedicated robust resources to both prevention and intervention services for students and their families,” she said in a statement. “This year, we are proud to expand upon past practices through the introduction of a certified drug and alcohol counselor and an enhanced preventive K-12 curriculum. We truly believe that it is through these initiatives and services that we are able to fulfill our mission of providing a well-rounded social, emotional and wellness program.”