Chris Lawler works as a chemical dependency counselor twice a week at Edina High School. He provides the same services the rest of the week at Mound Westonka High School in Minnetrista.

That’s because he works not for the high schools but for Relate Counseling Center, a mental and chemical health clinic in Minnetonka.

Rather than using in-house staffers, more school districts are bringing in trained contract workers to deal with the growing student practice of vaping and using marijuana. The shift in youth chemical dependency has contributed to the push for more chemical health counseling in schools, and officials say it’s more effective and less expensive to contract those services.

Social workers lack “the certification and some of the history and background necessary to provide the types of intervention services that Chris is capable of doing,” said Jeff Jorgensen, student support services director at Edina High.

“Schools are thirsty for us,” said Kate Roselle, a chemical health counselor at Wayzata and Mahtomedi high schools who works for Hazelden Betty Ford. “Schools are always trying to figure out how do we serve our kids and families better.”

Some school districts don’t have the money to pay full-time staffers for chemical health counseling. It’s been at least five years since Edina High has offered a position in chemical intervention; the job was dropped due to funding cuts, Jorgensen said.

Contract chemical health counselors, on the other hand, often can be paid for by sources outside the school district. Six districts pay for Relate’s services with funding from sources including federal or state grants or their communities.

A $20,000 grant from the city of Edina supports Lawler’s work at the high school. Judy Hanson was an in-house chemical health coordinator for the Wayzata Public Schools for 21 years before her job was scrubbed this year; she now works for Relate at Minnetonka High School, and the Wayzata district offers chemical health services through Hazelden Betty Ford.

Hanson said she helped roll out chemical health programs when districts were funding those jobs. “The first people on the chopping block when it came to budget cuts were support services, and that’s what happened with a lot of chemical health people,” she said.

Another reason school districts are using contracted services, Jorgensen said, is that they want a better relationship with nearby support services. “We thought … that our relationship with mental health centers would allow better access to those chemical services if necessary,” he said.

Vaping is one of the primary reasons for suspensions in the Edina district, Jorgensen said, and Wayzata’s Amy Naleid said it’s become something of an epidemic. “It’s out of control in every area high school,” she said.

Another issue is the rising use of marijuana. A marijuana culture has always existed, Roselle said, but it’s becoming more pervasive with the buzz about legalization.

“I have very few students who I meet with who drink, but almost all of them smoke marijuana,” she said. “People are getting creative with different strains of it, and it’s becoming … this exciting art form.”

Suspensions and citations generally have been going down, which may be related to the presence of chemical health services, Naleid said. Over the past several years, Wayzata High has seen far fewer students cited by police for using substances.

Contract counselors also have helped raise awareness of chemical dependency. Roselle said teachers have popped into her office or sent e-mails saying that they’ve seen behavior shifts in certain students.

Chemical health counseling, she said, is “becoming really holistic in the schools I’ve been in longer. And everyone is involved at every level and are able to, in a very educated way, have eyes on kids.”


Isabella Murray is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.