By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Monica Mallet shows students celebrities who have died
Images of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Marilyn Monroe flicker across a computer screen at the front of the classroom.
“What do they have in common?” asks Monica Mallet, at Buena Vista Continuation School. The teens, of course, know the answer. They are celebrities who have died from drugs.
Mallet is among the growing number of educators concerned about the effect of substance abuse on teens, specifically prescription drugs and marijuana.
“I’ve worked at schools where students have overdosed,” says Mallet, Los Angeles County Education Association. “Fortunately, they did not die, but it is a wake-up call.”
Easy access and legal drugs
“Are drugs cool?” asks Mallet. One student says that in movies and videos, dealers are surrounded by fancy cars, beautiful women and plenty of cash. Another boy says his brother takes drugs and nothing bad happens, so why shouldn’t he? A girl shares in a quiet voice that her father died from a drug overdose, so she steers clear. Others ask what the big deal is, since pot and pills are available in pharmacies before being sold on the street.
Mallet notes that even though some drugs are available with a prescription, it doesn’t mean they are safe. Michael Jackson and Brittany Murphy died from prescription drugs, she points out.
“Prescription drugs seem cleaner and safer. Students don’t think they are putting themselves in harm’s way,” says Greg Murphy, who teaches at Sober School, a school for students in recovery in San Luis Obispo. “Seeing a package of heroin on a table might make kids feel fearful, and there could be consequences that could ruin their lives. But if they see a bottle of pills, those worries don’t come to mind, even though Vicodin and OxyContin are powerful opiates and highly addictive. They think it’s OK because it can be obtained legally.”
The same attitude pertains to pot, he says. “Now that kids have access to medical marijuana from friends and relatives, they no longer see it as a street drug. They see it as pharmaceutical.”
Students receive mixed messages from parents and society that it is normal for students to experiment with drugs and alcohol, reports the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). It is considered a rite of passage that is inevitable. Sometimes, parents may be using drugs.
“We have meth here and it’s ugly,” says Tom Roberts, Shasta Secondary Employees Association president. “You can drive 20 minutes into the middle of nowhere and people are cooking it up. It’s amazing how many marijuana ‘scripts’ [prescription cards] kids have access to. All you need is a hangnail and 250 bucks to get one.”
Substance abuse affects the most prestigious college prep schools as well as disadvantaged students in poverty-stricken areas. Upscale communities are impacted by the drug epidemic. Teens are using legal designer drugs such as Spice, linked to the hospitalization of celebrity Demi Moore.
“Peer pressure is huge here, and students think it’s the norm,” says Diane Farthing, a ninth-grade health teacher at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton. “Our community has very high academic standards and high expectations that students will go to college. So you need a high GPA, plus you need to be involved in multiple activities like sports, scouts and volunteer work. Students sometimes feel they need to blow off a little steam on Saturday night. They get drunk or high.”
Farthing, an Association of Pleasanton Teachers member, agrees parents can be part of the problem. “Many students never party during the week, but on weekend nights they do. Parents think that as long as the kids don’t drive, it’s OK.”
Decreased funding = increased drug use?
Educators say that marijuana use is on the rise, partly from the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries and the ease of getting prescriptions. One in five teens admitted to driving under the influence of marijuana in a Liberty Mutual Insurance study. Research shows today’s pot is stronger than ever: The University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project indicates levels of THC were 10.1 percent last year, compared with less than 4 percent in 1983.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 20 percent of high school students have taken prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription. Meanwhile, CASA reports 75 percent of high school students have used alcohol or illicit drugs and 20 percent of those are addicted. Use of Ecstasy, which is both a stimulant and a hallucinogen, has increased among teens over the past three years, says a study from The Partnership at Drugfree.org and MetLife Foundation.
Economics may be a factor as drug prevention programs are cut back. The U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program was cut by a third between 1999 and 2008. State grants from the federal program dropped from $38 million for 2004-05 to $28 million for 2009-10 in California — and funding was completely eliminated in July 2010.
There were valuable strings attached to the funding of drug prevention and intervention programs, says Stephanie Papas, a school health education consultant for the California Department of Education. “Recipients had to administer the California Healthy Kids survey to gather data directly from students on current drug use, tobacco use and alcohol use. Schools also had to implement programs proven to be effective in preventing drug, alcohol and tobacco.”
While the Healthy Kids survey is no longer administered, Papas believes drug use is up.
Budget cuts at the state level have led to a shortage of school counselors to reach out to troubled students. California ranks last in the ratio of students per counselor; the state averages 945 to 1, compared with the national average of 477 to 1.
Rebecca Bendickson is the only counselor at John Still Middle School in Sacramento, and she received a pink slip. She believes counselors are crucial in helping students avoid drugs and alcohol.
“Middle school is the starting ground for this behavior, because students are trying to become adults and want to grow up fast,” Bendickson says.
When she suspects drug use or abuse, Bendickson talks to the student and parents. She counsels students and refers them to programs with trained substance abuse counselors.
“It’s important for me to build trust with students,” says the Sacramento City Teachers Association member. “We are a child’s last hope. They know they can come to us when they have problems.”
Papas agrees. “It goes beyond the ‘just say no’ campaign. Programs and curricula stressing decision-making skills, conflict resolution skills and life skills go beyond the topics of drug and alcohol prevention. They encourage kids how to make better choices for themselves,” she says.
Teachers say that “just say no” is not enough. A comprehensive approach works best. Surveys show that all these personal interactions make an important difference.
“You can’t just tell them not to take drugs,” says Dana Jones, who teaches at Windsor Oaks Academy. “Encourage them to respect themselves and feel good about themselves. Encourage them to be healthy, and to have good relationships with parents and friends. Kids take drugs because they may not necessarily like who they are or how they feel. We can change that.”
Jones urges her students to be “independent thinkers, instead of lemmings running off a cliff. Deal with family or emotional issues in a positive way instead of getting high.” Windsor Oaks Academy is a continuation school with at-risk students, so staff and students work closely with a counselor from the Drug Abuse Alternative Center.
Besides appealing to their sense of individuality and helping them develop coping skills, Diane Farthing educates students about the dire impact drugs can have on their brains.
What happens if students come to school high? “We take a firm stance in our district,” says Jones, Windsor District Education Association. “It has helped us to curb a lot of issues.” If students come to school under the influence, they are immediately suspended and the authorities are notified.
Other districts also take a firm stance. Shasta Union High School District is drug-testing students in extracurricular activities such as choir, the school band and Future Farmers of America.
“It gives students an easy way out if they feel pressured to take drugs. Students sign a waiver agreeing to this, so it’s a personal choice,” says Roberts, a resource specialist at Enterprise High School. “I think if a student is representing our school in any way, shape or form, they should be held accountable.”
In some school districts, including Pleasanton, dogs sniff out illegal substances on a random basis. The district decided to bring in dogs, which have sniffed out pot and prescription pills in students’ cars, after an increase in drug-related suspensions.
“I wouldn’t mind if they brought the dogs onto campus and into the classroom. Drugs have no place at school,” says Farthing.
Mallet believes school employees can help stop students from using.
“If you feel a student is using drugs, help that student. Talk to them. Get involved,” she says. “Call the parents. Call the police if you have to. Don’t let them walk out that door. You could be saving that kid’s life.”