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Frederick County Teachers Association

Drugs and our kids: Schools Grapple with Trend

Posted: Monday, March 3, 2014 2:00 am

By Rachel S. Karas News-Post Staff

When Jenna Bozick first used marijuana and ecstasy, she was a 12-year-old in California, and it was “the popular thing to do.”

She grew depressed and suicidal, moved to North Carolina and then Maryland, and found her solace in opiates. She was abusing Adderall and Xanax at 14, and after settling in New Market, heroin became her drug of choice.

“It was everywhere, especially at Oakdale (High School),” said Jenna, now a junior.

The 16-year-old had already been to rehab two times when she relapsed in August. She overdosed at school, and her heart stopped twice. A guidance counselor took her out of class and sent her home.

“I just hit my bottom,” Jenna said. “Everything was gone, ruined and I just needed a new start. I needed to find ways to be happy. I wanted to be clean.”

Jenna is one voice in what many believe is a growing epidemic of drug use in Frederick County schools. Illegal substances are becoming less taboo, shifting toward greater student use of opiates and prescription drugs, even among top academics. Students are shrewd about how and when to use drugs, and fewer are caught on campus.

School officials hope the county’s drug-related curriculum leads to healthier decision-making skills. Government programs to treat those who are disciplined for drugs, however, have lost nearly a quarter of their funding over the last four years.

And in this county, Jenna said, getting high doesn’t seem like a big deal.

“Frederick has a really bad problem, and I just don’t know when the heroin’s going to ever go away.”

What they’re using

Frederick County Public Schools reported more than 40 incidents of drug use, possession and distribution of drugs or paraphernalia this school year as of January.

Alcohol, tobacco and marijuana are the top three substances used by students who receive drug assessments through the county health department, according to Sarah Drennan, a clinical

treatment services manager at Frederick County Behavioral Health

Services. The less students perceive a risk associated with using a substance or sense disapproval by their parents, the more likely they are to use it, she said.

Linganore High School senior Tyler Graham said using substances like marijuana are becoming normalized; students come to school under the influence and brag about it on social media.

Graham, who is president of the Frederick County Association of Student Councils, said substance abuse assessments won’t deter students who have real addiction problems — “then it’s a medical thing,” he said.

Heroin use is more common among people older than high-schoolers, according to Frederick County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Mark Landahl, who heads the county’s school resource officers, but he pointed out that teenage use and abuse of opiate-based prescription drugs is on the rise.

One in four teens has misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, according to survey results released by The Partnership at Drugfree.org and the MetLife Foundation last April. That accounts for a 33 percent increase from 2008 to 2012, the results said.

Twenty percent of those who said they had abused prescription drugs said they had done so before age 14, according to the study.

In many cases, local youths travel to Baltimore to purchase heroin, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins said at a Jan. 29 presentation by the county’s drug awareness coalition. They typically purchase enough for their own use and enough to sell small quantities to their friends, he said.

The county reported 49 heroin-related overdoses in 2013, compared with 17 in 2012, Jenkins said.

Marijuana is the most popular drug, Frederick High senior Lily Wherry said, but more students are also using LSD.

The total number of students using drugs may not be increasing, but people are experimenting with more serious drugs than in the past, said Wherry, who serves as the Frederick County Board of Education’s student member.

Marijuana is more common on weekends and at parties, Wherry said, while Graham said he has witnessed drug deals on Linganore’s campus.

Jenna said Oakdale’s heroin addicts use the drugs before and after school.

Getting drugs is all about who you know but tends not to happen at school, Jenna said.

Finding drugs, she said, is “so easy it’s a joke.”

Schools emphasize decision skills

Frederick County Public School administrators hope their curriculum will deter students from trying drugs.

Brett Stark, a curriculum director for the school system, said teachers broach the subject through specific drug education curriculum in health classes or as topics in biology, American studies or English courses.

“What you’re going to get in kindergarten and first grade is not really anything about alcohol and tobacco,” Stark said. Earlier grades cover “general information about things that go into your body that are healthy (like vitamins and appropriate amounts of prescription medicine) and things that go into your body that aren’t healthy.”

Tobacco is more specifically addressed beginning in second grade; other drugs are touched on in fifth grade and beyond, Stark said. Skills such as conflict resolution and refusal are incorporated along the way.

“What we’re trying to do over time is build basic skills that revolve around decision-making … when it comes to these topics,” he said.

Students must take a nine-week health course to graduate, typically completed during ninth grade, Stark said. Drug education is also taught by health and physical education teachers in seventh and eighth grade, and a new sixth grade health course will be offered starting next year.

“It’s a good practice in place and I think we should be proud of it,” Stark said.

Parents have called for schools to expand their drug education, and Brian Griffith, curriculum specialist for secondary health and physical education, said he would like to see a greater variety of health electives be offered.

“We also need to think about the balance of the students’ day,” he said, adding that it is difficult to incorporate more lessons on drugs into the required health curriculum when many other topics must fit into the nine-week period.

Students: Drug lessons are ineffective

Teachers can invite their school resource officer into the classroom to supplement or lead lessons, but Stark said the officers aren’t written into the curriculum. School resource officers, or SROs, are members of law enforcement who provide security and crime prevention services in schools.

Landahl knows of no current funding for officer-led D.A.R.E., the international Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. Drug education is a partnership between schools and parents, and awareness should start in the home, he said.

Linganore’s Tyler Graham said the schools’ drug education curriculum needs an overhaul.

“It’s using a lot of outdated material,” he said. “Watching a cheesy video from the 90s … (students) are not going to take this seriously.”

A more powerful lesson could come from lectures delivered in person by recovered drug addicts, he said.

Wherry said she doesn’t know what a school could do to dissuade students from using drugs.

“When it comes down to it, a student does it because they want to,” she said. “The student is only going to change if they want to. … The people I know don’t see it as a problem.”

Parents: Schools could do more

Some parents hope the school system will prominently display anti-drug information and community resources on its website. Anneva Bozick, Jenna’s mother, said that while schools are becoming more open to discussing the issue, there is much work to be done.

“Parents have to do a lot of the footwork” in learning about drugs and how to help their children, Bozick said, adding that most parents are naive. “You have to be proactive.”

Bozick believes school staff is ill-equipped to cope with the growing number of students who take drugs before class.

“Teachers need to be trained to see the signs,” she said. “I’m surprised the teachers don’t notice the kids are high or ignore it.”

Common signs include tiny pupils and “nodding out,” which is often mistaken for sleepiness, she said, adding that not all students exhibit slumping academics and introversion.

Users harder to catch

Dayna Valek, a sophomore at Catoctin High School, said she has noticed more students taking drugs in recent years. She doesn’t believe disciplinary measures are always carried out to their fullest extent.

School resource officers have said their options are limited when they see students who are high or drunk but do not have drugs with them. The officers and school staff try to determine if students have any substances or paraphernalia at the school.

“A lot of the time what we’re looking for is already gone, and the best thing to do is meet with the parent, counsel the child,” Middletown High School’s school resource officer Andy Smothers said at the Jan. 29 presentation.

Those limitations make school resource officers largely ineffective, Bozick said. She thinks schools need a drug-specific counselor and more nursing staff to diagnose drug use or overdoses on campus.

It is also becoming more difficult to identify drug users because the demographic of students who experiment with substances is shifting, she said.

“There’s a big stigma that heroin addicts are all in the gutter,” she said. “You’ve got a middle class, upper-middle class high school … with kids who come from good, loving parents.”

Pain, pressure and pleasure

Some studies point to growing stress at younger ages as a cause of drug use, both to calm nerves and speed productivity. Others have found that children think their parents are less disapproving of drug use than in the past. Still more say an addiction can develop from using prescribed painkillers to treat injury.

Catoctin’s Valek said students don’t think about the long-term consequences; they see drugs and alcohol as something to relax them or to have fun. The mindset is “Oh, it won’t affect me enough to mess up the things I’m trying to do” later in life, she said.

Jenna Bozick said students use drugs because there’s not much to do in the area or as a way to socialize.

“I know a lot of girls who (use heroin) and they start hanging out with the wrong guys,” she said.

Her mother believes it speaks to the underdeveloped decision-making skills of the teenage brain. In the case of opiates, she said, “kids don’t realize it’s such an addictive drug.”

Students know what they try is harmful, Wherry said, but have “a tendency to think they’re kind of invincible.

“I really think they just want to try new things and do things they’re not supposed to because it gives them sort of a rush.”

Seeking solutions

Bozick and other parents hope the county’s recent drug awareness efforts will help families address the problem before it continues to grow.

Combating drug use is a county priority, Jenkins has said, and he urges parents to maintain open communication with their children and establish firm stances at home against drugs.

Adults should secure their prescription medications to curb inappropriate use by their children, recommends Drennan, of the county’s behavioral health services.

In the meantime, Drennan hopes families will turn to health professionals for care as they would during any other illness.

“We just want to see young people and their families get support when they need it, get treatment,” she said. “By not having as many come through our doors, we can’t help as many.”

At almost 200 days sober, Jenna Bozick is celebrating the longest she’s been clean since she started using.

“I feel like a new person,” she said. “I haven’t

been this happy in years. I would never, ever go back.”

She encourages other students who use drugs to rely on family, friends and support systems like Narcotics Anonymous for help. Find healthy activities like yoga to replace the habit, she said.

“Things may feel horrible now but there’s so much more time and so much more room to grow … to find the happiness you want,” she said. “Using a substance is definitely just going to make it worse … It may feel good now, but it will do nothing good for you.”