With Labor Day weekend squarely in the rear-view mirror, teens across the nation are donning their freshest gear and getting ready to confront yet another school year. In Colorado, thousands of those kids will be met by new school employees paid for by legal weed.
According to the Denver Post, $9.2 million of the state’s recreational cannabis sales tax will go towards funding a massive overhaul of the state’s public school health and addiction awareness programs. The grant program will help alleviate a statewide school nurse shortage.
“We and other school health professionals are in a unique position in our schools in that we see these kids every day and we can educate, assess and assist them with substance abuse or behavioral health issues,” Rhonda Valdez, a full-time nurse hired with cannabis tax funds to serve Wheat Ridge High School, said. “We can help keep kids from walking through that door that can lead to bad things.”
The millions in child-wellness funding is being distributed by the Colorado Department of Education to 42 school districts and charter schools, with an emphasis on middle and high schools near cannabis dispensaries.
And while there has still been no evidence to suggest that teenage cannabis use has gone up at all since Colorado legalized weed in 2014, that doesn’t make a need for comprehensive health staff any less necessary.
“There is a growing need for this type of service in our schools, and we are trying to get ahead of it,” Jon Widmier, director of student services for the Jefferson County School District, told the Post, adding that the grants can also be used to hire more counselors trained to deal with suicide prevention and provide kids more consistent and comprehensive personal attention.
“That’s one reason why we are so excited about this,” Widmier said. “We can offer more focused support on one place.”
For Valdez, who used to rotate between three schools in the Jefferson County District, the increased funding means she can now focus all of her time and energy helping the kids at Wheat Ridge.
Still, the stranger-than-fiction set of circumstances that lead to the new hires is not lost on Colorado’s educators.
“It’s an interesting life we are in right now,” said Ellen Kelty, Denver Public School’s interim director of student equity and opportunity. “But anything we can do to eliminate depression and other things that cause substance abuse is a step forward. We just want to make sure kids make smarter choices.”