Youth, schools caught in growing drug epidemic
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.
“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.”
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.