By Daniel Ritz
Mike Darnold is what most would consider a community pillar founded in dualism.
In the 74-year-old San Juan Capistrano resident’s long career of public service, Darnold has held positions such as school board president, Fullerton police officer and president of the National Council on Alcoholism/Drug Dependence for Orange County.
Now, as the youth interventionist at Dana Hills High School, Darnold feels he is making his largest impact to date—despite his lack of clinical accreditations—by assisting students who may be battling substance use disorders or mental health issues.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a psychologist and I’m not a treatment specialist,” Darnold said, while sitting in his office at Dana Hills High School. “I’m an interventionist, and I’m really good at it.
Darnold’s position, which was created in 2008, was supported and created by then City Manager Doug Chotkevys.
“We quickly discussed it at a football game and then I sat down with my wife for a whole weekend preparing a proposal packet involving community action items,” Darnold said about the creation of his position. “…I walked in, handed it to Doug (Chotkevys), and he read a few lines before promptly throwing it in the garbage and writing on a piece of paper a note that read, “Be there for the kids.’”
Why like Mike?
Along with his social service, educational and humanitarian accolades, Darnold is admittedly in recovery from a substance use disorder himself and became sober at the age of 37.
This, as he described, helps him connect with students. He also typically expresses the fortune of having resources available to help them confront their addictions.
Darnold recognizes his position is unique. Officially contracted by the City of Dana Point, Darnold admits he was lucky to walk into a receptive city atmosphere, as well as a willing Board of Education.
Darnold credits his vast work experience, and diverse life experiences, for allowing him the insight to help the youth of Dana Hills High School today.
When a wave of drug and alcohol-related deaths struck local South Orange County schools in the late 2000s, the committed academic philanthropist was there to step in and offer his social work.
“About 90 percent of the kids I see on a day-to-day basis come from families with resources,” Darnold said. “But I see kids from every walk of life.”
With accredited residential rehabilitation programs decreasing in numbers locally for the high-school-age demographic, parents are often presented with a choice of exorbitantly expensive out-of-state residential programs, participating in demographic-specific rehabilitation or taking no action at all.
“I want to help these kids. I want to help them remember who they were before drugs. I want to keep them at Dana Hills High School and get them the help they need.”
How the high school program works
Darnold works from non-descript room 300 within Dana Hills High School, where he assists anywhere from 250 to 500 students a year. Students are able to walk into his office unannounced on their own accord, or they can be referred to him by their peers.
Being under contract with the City of Dana Point, students understand that Darnold does not hold authority, does not intend to “punish” them, and that he is there to help them if, and when, they ask him for it.
Mike’s unique position—outside of Capistrano Unified School District, but within its doors under City contract—could seem hypothetically problematic.
“There’s never been an issue since I’ve been here, and that’s been through three different principals,” Darnold said when asked about his philosophies toward intervention’s cohesiveness with Capistrano Unified School District’s curriculum.
He also regularly gives presentations to teachers and other school employees on current drug trends, and successful alternative intervention methods.
When asked if he had ever encountered resistance when he approached a student’s parents about their child’s substance use disorder, Darnold said he’s never been turned away.
“I’ve never been kicked out of a home,” Darnold said. “I’ve never even been hung up on. I actually never call anyone. I’ll talk, but I make them call. I don’t tell people how to run their families. I’m here to facilitate.”
This is a part of Darnold’s initiative to help students help themselves, and he believes incorporating the family is the first step.
“My first goal and my first hope is to bring the family. The family has to be a part of the solution and the support system.”
Darnold noted that when a student enters his office, he more often than not, starts by asking questions as opposed to giving direction. Occasionally, Darnold has to reassure students.
“’Neither you nor I can fix everything that you are going through, but I can help you feel better about it,’” Darnold said of his response to students.
Community support outside of Dana Hills
Vanessa Stone is a teacher at Vista Del Mar Elementary School in San Clemente, and the parent of two young children within the local school system.
She is a part of Darnold’s Parent Project program, a separate 10-week parent counseling class outside of Dana Hills High School, where Darnold and others educate parents about the challenging world their children are living in, and ways for parents to create open and honest relationships with their children.
Stone claims that although the program has been mentally and emotionally difficult, Darnold’s self-enabling, family-first philosophy has enabled her to care for her family in a more loving, and vigilant way.
“(Mike’s) teachings have taught me to let my child make her own decisions, but allow her to trust that as her parent, I will surround her with good decisions and how they should be made,” Stone said.
More information on the Parent Project can be found at www.theparentproject.com. More information on Mike’s program at Dana Hills High School, and his various other endeavors can be found at www.dhhs.schoolloop.com/studentintervention.