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Coming up clean (er)

Drug use decreasing in high schools

Posted: Sunday, February 21, 2010

Last year, Oxycontin was an epidemic in Juneau's high schools.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Reports of widespread drug use prompted a mandatory random drug testing program for athletes that began in October, a voluntary random testing program that will begin in the next week or so, and an unprecedented level of community discussion about drugs in schools.

Now, many say while drugs are still present in schools and seem more consistent in Juneau as a whole, the use of hard drugs by students has decreased.

Students, administrators and counselors who say they see a positive change credit a wide variety of reasons.

Awareness

By far the most prevalent reason people cite for the apparent improvement in the schools is simple awareness.

"I do think raising awareness (about Oxycontin, also called oxycodone or "Oxy") has alleviated some of the tension around the problem," said Juneau-Douglas Drug and Alcohol Counselor Dawn Kolden. "It's still there, but it doesn't seem to be as big as it was last year ... there's so much more awareness. People are getting more information about the dangers of it. It's not just a fun thing to try anymore."

JDHS junior and baseball player James San Miguel said the school is more aware of the problem with Oxy. "They're putting out fliers and stuff, and people are finding out the effects of it," he said.

"I think the reason for the difference is there was a community effort in addressing and recognizing that there was a problem," Thunder Mountain High School Assistant Principal Kathryn Milliron said. "Another thing that has helped us is we're trying more to intervene with students - to help them as opposed to punish them and make criminals out of them."

Milliron said so far this school year at Thunder Mountain, only one student has been arrested for bringing drugs on campus - a significant reduction from typical numbers in her 14 years in the school system.

Matt Felix, director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency of Juneau, said the nonprofit has seen about half the number of high school students referred for using Oxy this school year as compared to a little more than 30 last year.

Felix says community awareness and action, the police department arresting some of the main Oxy dealers, drug testing and physician awareness all have something to do with it.

Among young adults in general, however - those in their 20s and 30s who have left school - Felix said while the numbers may have decreased slightly, they are much more consistent.

Students' perceptions of drugs in schools varies widely. Many say they see improvement. Quite a few say they don't.

Some students believe kids aren't using less, they're just getting caught less.

"I think the Juneau School District itself is overrun with substances," said TMHS senior Cody Sinclair.

Sinclair said he moved to Juneau from a small town in Washington. "I came here and I was like 'Wow,'" he said.

Amanda Gardner, who moved to Juneau from Hawaii, also said she was surprised at the prevalence of drugs.

"I personally haven't (noticed a difference in school atmosphere,)" said JDHS junior Caitlin Chalmers. "When I got to the high school I never noticed a huge problem then either. Apparently there was one. So either I'm just unobservant or people who are in charge notice things that high schoolers just don't."

JDHS junior Devin Drones said he thinks the problem has gotten better, but it still catches him by surprise who uses Oxy, with kids who seem like they wouldn't doing it. "It's people you would never expect. Really preppy," he said.

Some say kids use drugs on campus less. TMHS senior Nichole Eyre said the high number of drug busts last year, and a heightened police presence in the school, has served to dissuade some students from using, but she still sees kids stoned (from marijuana) in class.

"They'll act normal, but you can tell and you can smell," she said.

Dropping out, graduating

Several JDHS students said a lot of the Oxy problem had to do with the senior class last year.

"I think it's gotten better because of people graduating," Drones said.

JDHS junior and baseball player James San Miguel agreed.

"I feel like maybe a lot of it had to do with the seniors last year," he said. "It was a bigger problem, but I don't think this year it's as big."

Policeman and School Resource Officer Blain Hatch said "a lot of problematic Oxy kids" graduated and moved on in the last couple of years.

Hatch also said some kids have quit school because of their involvement with Oxy and marijuana - but some have "cleaned up their act."

"A lot of them have realized the consequences of what it brings," Hatch said.

Juneau Police Investigator Jim Quinto said the police department's primary concern in Juneau as a whole is opiate-based drugs like Oxy, heroin and meth, which he said seems to be on the rise.

"Oxy seems to still be out there," he said. "It's almost our primary drug we work on."

Mandatory drug testing

Hatch said he's heard some kids aren't using because they want to play sports. "We think we've seen definitely an improvement with the kids that are in sports," he said.

More than 150 student-athletes have been tested randomly for alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, oxycodone, cocaine, opiates, methamphetamines and benzodiazepines through their involvement with sports since October. All so far have been negative.

Junior Tyee Dasan said mandatory testing has made some kids want to stop.

"Kids want to stop so they can do after school activities," he said. "It's a big part of everybody's lives here. It's just a matter of what the students want to do and choose to do."

San Miguel said drug testing is not really a big topic of conversation on the baseball team. The baseball season has not yet begun. "We just focus on playing," San Miguel said. "I'm sure that if any of us have done it or are doing it, we're quitting so we can play."

"I think if someone had said 'I bet if we start this thing in October and we test kids, we won't have a single positive' - I think people would have argued that big time. So I think it is... a positive surprise," said superintendent Glenn Gelbrich.

Voluntary testing

Some students are skeptical of the voluntary program's ultimate good, saying students are signing up just to get freebies, without the intention of stopping drug use.

That's in part why the rewards are structured as they are, with a monthly drawing for a $50 Visa gift card at each school, and 20 cards worth $250 each distributed among a pool of all the district's participants at the end of the school year, said district spokeswoman Kristin Bartlett.

"The whole point is to have kids sign up and continue to be participating in the program the whole time," she said.

All the money for the drawings comes from Juneau's business community. Around 30 businesses are currently participating.

So far, 93 kids are signed up at JDHS, 49 from TMHS, and eight from Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School, Bartlett said.

One JDHS senior said he signed up for the voluntary program in hopes it will help him stop smoking marijuana, which he said he's been doing for several years. "I'm kind of waiting till they give me the test, because that will give me more incentive," he said.

JDHS Assistant Superintendent Dale Staley also said at least one kid who has signed up for the voluntary program has told him they use a drug and are hoping participation will give them the incentive to stop.

JDHS senior and student body president Haley Nelson, who signed up for the voluntary testing program, said the testing programs have given some kids an excuse to stay off or say no to drugs. "I guess there are also some people who don't appreciate it. I think it's definitely keeping kids off drugs, whether they're happy about it or not... . I'm sure there are drugs around, but there always will be," she said.

Junior Caitlin Chalmers also said she signed up for voluntary testing. "I think the voluntary program is a really good idea... on paper," Chalmers said. "It's not going to affect much, because kids who are going to volunteer for drug testing, though it will set a good example for other students, it's going to be the kids who aren't at risk for having drugs affecting their lives. It works in its own way, but it's not as effective as people make it out to be."

"That voluntary drug testing thing might help a little bit," JDHS senior Nikko Bell said. "They're giving prizes and stuff for staying in there."

Bell also said, however, that "Pretty much kids are just going to do what they want."

The official first day of voluntary testing is not announced in order to maintain randomness, but Gelbrich said it will begin "very soon."

Other changes

Several people, students and administrators alike, said having kids divided over two high schools has helped.

Staley said he hasn't been keeping count of disciplinary infractions surrounding drugs, but would guess if there are fewer at JDHS, it's because there are fewer kids at the school itself.

The school district collects information on disciplinary infractions, but does not compile and analyze it until after the school year is complete.

Staley also said the fact that JDHS students are all in one building now, instead of going back and forth between the Marie Drake and JDHS, has helped.

"We would regularly find people who shouldn't be here coming in with students when they were transferring from Marie Drake to JD High, and we would often times lose kids between... the transition back and forth between periods," he said. "It was a great opportunity to pick up something that you didn't need, or somebody that you shouldn't be with, or just get lost (leave school for the day.) You were already outside, why wouldn't you just go over to A&P?"

That school size has made a difference is an opinion seconded by Milliron.

"Students can't hide in a mass number like they could when we had 1,700 students at JDHS," she said. "They're easier to connect with and develop relationships with."

TMHS senior Kevin Thornton said he went to JDHS his freshman and sophomore year and the problem there was much worse because of the school population's size.

Still a ways to go

While the use of hard drugs, and especially Oxy, seems to have decreased in the high schools, other drugs seem to be coming more into focus now, administrators say.

Hatch said in the last few months, he has seen an increase in problems with marijuana. "It kind of comes in cycles, like everything else," he said.

Kolden said discussion centering around Oxy "overshadowed" awareness about marijuana last year.

Staley said testing has probably been a good deterrent to harder drugs, though he doesn't know what's going to happen with student use of things that are easier to get a hold of.

"Alcohol is still the main drug of choice by kids of any age," Felix said.

Hatch also said he has heard rumors of two shipments of ecstasy coming through at the high school level, though there have been no arrests.

"We certainly haven't eliminated all the potential issues in terms of school climate," Gelbrich said. "Drugs and alcohol are still available to kids. They're still available in the community. We have a ways to go, but we're on the right track."

Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.



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