Youth, schools caught in grow­ing drug epi­demic

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY BEN FELDER Staff Writer bfelder@ok­la­

By sixth grade, Ju­lia was drink­ing al­co­hol, a year later smok­ing mar­i­juana and by high school was abus­ing Xanax pills and us­ing heroin.

“I would march drunk,” she said about per­form­ing in the high school march­ing band, which she had to leave be­hind af­ter drop­ping out of school her sopho­more year.

“I was just try­ing to get higher and higher. I didn’t want to feel any­thing.”

Ju­lia, now 17, is 13 months sober af­ter a stint in re­hab and nearly a year at Mis­sion Academy High School, a north Ok­la­homa City pri­vate school for stu­dents deal­ing with drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion.

Less than a year since a life of over­doses and sui­cide at­tempts, she says she’s on the path to re­cov­ery af­ter find­ing adults she can trust and a com­mu­nity of teenagers like her.

“I’m still in my ad­dic­tion,” she told The Ok­la­homan, who is only us­ing the teenager’s first name. “But I have fun with my friends now and I don’t have to be (messed) up for it.”

Her spi­ral into sub­stance abuse came at a time when teenage over­dose deaths na­tion­wide had spiked. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port from the Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Preven­tion, teen over­dose fa­tal­i­ties in­creased by 19 per­cent in 2015.

Deaths from opi­oid abuse alone passed 60,000 for all Amer­i­cans last year, mak­ing it the na­tion’s top killer.

Ok­la­homa has not been im­mune to Amer­ica’s grow­ing drug epi­demic, and it’s hav­ing an im­pact on the state’s youth, whether they have also be­come users, or are be­ing raised in a home with par­ents who use.

“Nowa­days you see a lot more kids in­volved in the pre­scrip­tion pills,” said Chris Lam­bakis, a drug and al­co­hol coun­selor for El Reno Public Schools, who said the big­gest chal­lenge he faces in pre­vent­ing stu­dents from us­ing drugs is deal­ing with grow­ing drug use at stu­dents’ homes.

“If I have a stu­dent that I visit with who has dis­closed to me their sub­stance abuse, and then they tell me that mom or dad smokes weed them­selves, how im­pact­ful is my con­ver­sa­tion go­ing to be with them when it’s not frowned upon at home?” Lam­bakis said.

Abuse of opi­oid pre­scrip­tions, which in­cludes drugs like oxy­codone, hy­drocodone and fen­tanyl, have been on the rise in many parts of the na­tion over the last sev­eral years, in­clud­ing Ok­la­homa. Re­ports have showed a slight de­crease in Ok­la­homa in re­cent years, but the abuse of pre­scrip­tion pills re­mains an area of con­cern for of­fi­cials.

Since a peak in 2013, over­dose deaths in Ok­la­homa for all ages have fallen 25 per­cent. How­ever, in 2015, Ok­la­homa still saw an av­er­age of nearly two un­in­ten­tional drug poi­son­ing deaths per day, and from 2010 to 2016, the num­ber of Ok­la­homans who died from meth over­doses in­creased from 91 to 333, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the Ok­la­homa Bureau of Nar­cotics and Danger­ous Drugs.

Those who mon­i­tor the epi­demic say preven­tion and ed­u­ca­tion at an early age re­mains one of the best tools for com­bat­ing opi­oid ad­dic­tion and work­ing to­ward a last­ing de­crease.

Drug ed­u­ca­tion

“Ed­u­ca­tion ... that’s 50 per­cent of the so­lu­tion,” said Rich Sal­ter, as­sis­tant spe­cial agent in charge at the fed­eral Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Ok­la­homa City of­fice. “Most of th­ese peo­ple who are tak­ing th­ese pills are not think­ing that in three months they are go­ing to be a heroin ad­dict.”

But those who work in schools said drug ed­u­ca­tion and preven­tion pro­grams have be­come harder to im­ple­ment due to bud­get cuts and shift­ing at­ten­tion to core aca­demic sub­jects.

“With so much fo­cus on state test­ing, ... ar­rang­ing some­thing where (stu­dents) are out of those core classes is nearly im­pos­si­ble,” said Lind­sey Stafford, a li­censed drug coun­selor who works in El Reno schools. “To have as­sem­blies in to­day’s time with the bud­get (cuts) and test­ing and all that, you can’t do it.”

Tra­di­tional drug ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams like D.A.R.E. and staffing a re­source of­fi­cer are be­com­ing rarer at many schools, which some say is partly to blame for the rise in teenage drug abuse.

Jeff Har­grave, di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions at F.A.T.E. (Fight­ing Ad­dic­tion Through Ed­u­ca­tion), a non­profit that puts on free drug aware­ness pro­grams at schools across the state, said school lead­ers have ex­pressed an in­ter­est in their ser­vices due to a grow­ing chal­lenge in do­ing th­ese types of pro­grams in house.

“We tai­lor each pre­sen­ta­tion to each school’s need and the re­gion,” said Har­grave, whose or­ga­ni­za­tion has vis­ited over 70 Ok­la­homa schools since 2010. “Typ­i­cally, if we are speak­ing in Ed­mond or some of th­ese more af­flu­ent schools we will talk a lit­tle more about the dan­gers of pre­scrip­tion drug abuse. In more of the ru­ral ar­eas meth might be more of a prob­lem and we fo­cus on that.”

Oth­ers say drug ad­dic­tion in teenagers has in­creased as mar­i­juana be­comes more so­cially ac­cepted, so­cial me­dia con­nects users with sup­pli­ers, and drug use among par­ents trick­les down to chil­dren.

“It just seems to be in­creas­ing,” said Mike Mad­dox, the clin­i­cal di­rec­tor at Teen Re­cov­ery So­lu­tions. “Not just in mar­i­juana use, but also pre­scrip­tion drugs, heroin and co­caine.”

Teen Re­cov­ery So­lu­tions is a non­profit that op­er­ates Mis­sion Academy, the school for teenagers strug­gling with ad­dic­tion. Lead­ers said there isa short­age of public and pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties alike serv­ing chem­i­cally-de­pen­dent ado­les­cents.

Ju­lia learned about Mis­sion Academy while in re­hab and saw it as a way to re­ori­ent her life around other teenagers who shared sim­i­lar sto­ries.

“We are all do­ing the same thing; we are all around the same age. It’s nice to have peo­ple who take it se­ri­ously,” she said. “All of us have been through some se­ri­ous stuff.”

Parental use

While the rise in drug ad­dic­tion in­cludes use by ado­les­cents, the big­gest im­pact on chil­dren and teenagers re­mains use by par­ents, which has con­trib­uted to rises in youth with in­car­cer­ated par­ents, as well as chil­dren in state cus­tody: two ar­eas in which Ok­la­homa is out­pac­ing most of the na­tion.

“There is a def­i­nite cor­re­la­tion of rates of child abuse in spe­cific coun­ties and drug abuse,” said Sheree Pow­ell, com­mu­ni­ca­tions co­or­di­na­tor for the Ok­la­homa De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices. “We must do bet­ter as a state to ad­dress the needs of Ok­la­homans who are ad­dicted if we want to keep our chil­dren safe from abuse and ne­glect.”

With a rate of 11 out of ev­ery 1,000 chil­dren in fos­ter care, Ok­la­homa has the sec­ond high­est rate in the na­tion.

From 2010 to 2015, the num­ber of chil­dren con­firmed as the vic­tims of abuse and ne­glect by DHS more than dou­bled to 15,252. In nearly 85 per­cent of those cases sub­stance abuse by the par­ent or guardian was listed as the lead­ing con­tribut­ing fac­tor.

“Sub­stance abuse con­tin­ues to be the ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tor in our state’s over­all high rate of (fos­ter care),” Pow­ell said.

An era of harsh sen­tenc­ing re­quire­ments for drug-re­lated crimes and an in­crease in drug use helped push the state to the sec­ond high­est in­car­cer­a­tion rate in the na­tion, lead­ing to one in 10 Ok­la­homa chil­dren hav­ing a par­ent in prison at some point dur­ing their child­hood, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics re­leased last year by The An­nie E. Casey Foun­da­tion.

“Kids come in and ask, ‘What can I do about my mom and dad?’” said Stafford, the El Reno schools drug coun­selor.

Stafford would like to see more fund­ing for drug preven­tion pro­grams and a move away from test­ing that al­lowed for more time work­ing with stu­dents. But she also said it’s im­por­tant for teach­ers and coun­selors to be able to con­nect with stu­dents and spot the warn­ing signs that drugs are part of their life.

“The most im­por­tant thing about preven­tion is re­la­tion­ships,” Stafford said. “Build­ing those re­la­tion­ships with those kids so those kids know they are im­por­tant to some­body.”

Catch­ing ad­dic­tion early

Bill Sharp scans his key­card over the small black reader to the right of a large metal door, waits for the high-pitched beep and pulls on the han­dle. The door sep­a­rates a ster­ile white-painted hall­way from a res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ter for teenagers in­side the Gary E. Miller Chil­dren’s Jus­tice Cen­ter in El Reno. Sharp is fa­cil­ity di­rec­tor of be­hav­ioral health ser­vices for the fa­cil­ity.

“You could eas­ily mort­gage a house to pay for this,” Sharp said, re­gard­ing the cost of teen re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams, which can run be­tween $400 and $600 a day at many pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties.

Funded mostly through Cana­dian County tax­pay­ers, the fa­cil­ity in El Reno is free for any county ado­les­cent, of­fer­ing up to six months of sub­stance abuse treat­ment. How­ever, state bud­get cuts have re­duced the num­ber of avail­able beds from 24 to 12 in re­cent years.

Sober liv­ing and ther­apy for ad­dic­tion are ma­jor goals for those kids who come to the fa­cil­ity. But Sharp said chem­i­cally de­pen­dent teenagers are of­ten in need of help in other ar­eas that con­trib­ute to de­struc­tive be­hav­ior.

Sharp re­called one young man ad­dicted to opi­oids who came to the cen­ter and was reg­u­larly reclu­sive, wear­ing his long hair over his face. Af­ter re­al­iz­ing he was miss­ing sev­eral teeth, Sharp ar­ranged for a trip to the den­tist and the use of den­tures re­sulted in an im­me­di­ate change.

“All of a sud­den there goes the hair, and here comes the smile. That’s a win,” Sharp said. “Some­times it’s about chang­ing life cir­cum­stance and the is­sues that are im­por­tant to them.”

The Jus­tice Cen­ter ben­e­fits from an in­house court sys­tem that is ea­ger to re­spond with ser­vices, rather than

pun­ish­ment, Sharp said. Free drug screen­ing and ad­di­tional coun­sel­ing ser­vices also seek to give par­ents an op­por­tu­nity to tackle ad­dic­tion be­fore it gets be­yond con­trol.

“Here they have a sec­ond chance, th­ese mis­takes won’t fol­low them through­out life,” said Rachel Roberts, a coun­selor at the cen­ter, speak­ing to the less for­giv­ing na­ture of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem once youth reach the age of 18.

Each Mon­day in the ju­ve­nile court­room, coun­selor Naomi Bradley sits in as a li­ai­son for be­hav­ioral health ser­vices, able to quickly an­swer ques­tions about fam­ily coun­sel­ing ses­sions or to sched­ule a phys­i­o­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion.

Nearly all of the ju­ve­nile cases that come through the courts, in­clud­ing those re­lated to drug use, have a sit­u­a­tion of prob­lems at home, Bradley said. Some­times a court­room is the first time a teenager is con­fronted about their ad­dic­tion.

“When­ever some­one is ad­dicted they can’t re­ally see a way out and they can’t get out with­out cer­tain help,” Bradley said. “It’s easy to see the kid as just mak­ing bad de­ci­sions, and they are. But if they don’t have that sup­port at home and no one to call them out on it, we may be the first op­por­tu­nity for that.”

Over­com­ing the stigma

In­side a sin­gle-story store­front in an in­dus­trial neigh­bor­hood in north Ok­la­homa City, stu­dents at Mis­sion Academy file into a com­puter lab for the day’s first class. One stu­dent com­pli­ments an­other on a new pair of shoes, a young girl checks her hair in a com­puter’s cam­era, and teacher Doug McPheron in­structs the class to the day’s as­sign­ment on the dry erase board.

While school can be a source of peer pres­sure to ex­per­i­ment with drugs, and the phrase “just say no” is not al­ways so­cially ac­cepted, stu­dents at Mis­sion Academy ben­e­fit from a re­verse set of peer pres­sure.

“We take that peer pres­sure and use it to our ad­van­tage in a teen en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery­one is sober,” said McPheron. “Here it makes you an out­sider to be some­one who is us­ing (drugs). It be­comes al­most a sta­tus sym­bol around here to have a year of so­bri­ety.”

The re­cov­ery school model has demon­strated suc­cess na­tion­wide with help­ing teenagers go on to live a life free of drug use. Stud­ies have shown stu­dents in a re­cov­ery school re­lapse at a rate half of stu­dents who re­main in a tra­di­tional school.

“It’s re­ally hard as a teen, even if you do get help, to go back into a tra­di­tional high school and main­tain re­cov­ery,” said Robyn Meade-Rit­ter, a teacher at Mis­sion Academy.

“It’s hard to go back into those same cir­cles and keep those bound­aries.”

Set up as a pri­vate school where most stu­dents re­ceive some type of fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance, Mis­sion Academy pushes stu­dents to face their ad­dic­tions head on, openly share their strug­gles and ac­cept the fact that set­backs hap­pen.

“This place is keep­ing me sober,” said Ca­bel, 15, who abused co­caine and heroin be­fore ar­riv­ing at Mis­sion Academy this year.

Af­ter a three-month stretch of so­bri­ety, he found him­self in a car with friends when one pulled out a bong to smoke mar­i­juana. When it was passed to Ca­bel, he in­stinc­tively pulled it to­ward his mouth.

“I had the bong to my lips,” the teen told The Ok­la­homan, who is only us­ing his first name. “I had the lighter and ev­ery­thing; my body was say­ing ‘do it, do it, do it.’”

But Ca­bel thought about the trust he had built back with his mother, the sup­port he had at school and de­cided to pass the bong with­out tak­ing a hit.

“It was scary,” said Ca­bel, who is now six months sober. “Ev­ery­body told me it was a re­ally big deal ... I was su­per proud to say I was still sober.”

Mad­dox said one of the big­gest chal­lenges to re­cov­ery, es­pe­cially for teenagers, is the stigma associated with ad­dic­tion.

“The shame and guilt, es­pe­cially what par­ents will feel when they find out their teen is us­ing, it’s hard for many to over­come,” Mad­dox said. “Some peo­ple think (drug use) is just a part of ado­les­cence. But not all teens ex­per­i­ment with drugs and al­co­hol and it’s a danger­ous be­lief to be­lieve that they will just grow out of it. This is a deadly disease and it takes too many lives too early.”


Sub­stance abuse coun­selor Chris Lam­bakis stands in the hall­way May 22 as stu­dents pass by be­tween classes at Etta Dale Ju­nior High in El Reno. Schools in the state have new chal­lenges to over­come as they are ad­dress­ing the evo­lu­tion of drug ad­dic­tion.


Mis­sion Academy teacher Robyn Meade-Rit­ter works with stu­dents at Mis­sion Academy, a high school for stu­dents deal­ing with ad­dic­tion.


Sub­stance abuse coun­selors Lind­sey Stafford and Chris Lam­bakis speak to a stu­dent in the hall­way at Etta Dale Ju­nior High in El Reno.

Bill Sharp, fa­cil­ity co-di­rec­tor, speaks about ad­dic­tion and men­tal health prob­lems con­cern­ing chil­dren at the Gary E. Miller Cana­dian County Chil­dren’s Jus­tice Cen­ter in El Reno.


Mis­sion Academy stu­dent Ju­lian, 16, works dur­ing an art project in­side the small high school in Ok­la­homa City.


Sub­stance abuse coun­selor Lind­sey Stafford stands in the hall­way May 22 as stu­dents pass by be­tween classes at Etta Dale Ju­nior High in El Reno. Schools in the state have new chal­lenges to over­come as they are ad­dress­ing the evo­lu­tion of drug ad­dic­tion.

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