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Hernando school district faces crisis in funding drug counseling for students

BROOKSVILLE — This week, a Hernando County high school student collapsed in class.

Janice Smith, the district's Safe and Drug Free Schools coordinator, declined to say which school or even whether the student was male or female.

But Smith did say which drug the student had ingested.

"Xanax is very popular," Smith said. "The last two or three times we've had a medical emergency, it's because of Xanax."

It's one more statistic in an increasing number of student drug cases, and the district now has a hard time keeping up with the demand for counseling services, Smith said.

Now the program, composed of Smith, two drug counselors and a secretary, faces a funding crisis.

Smith learned last month that the district is about to lose $95,000 in federal funds that pay for one of its counselors, the secretary, and after-school drug and tobacco awareness programs for students and their parents.

The secretary is a vital position, helping coordinate services and confirming that students are complying with requirements of the program, Smith said.

The news was a tough blow, Smith said, because just a few months ago she thought her department would actually be gaining a staffer.

The district recently secured a $72,454 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to cover the cost of an additional counselor's salary and benefits for the next year, along with materials for a drug-prevention program that will target middle school students.

Though some other grant funding is a possibility, there is really only one sure way to keep the services at the current level, Smith said.

"I would need the (financial) support of the district," she said. "I understand they have primary issues with the school budget. I'm sensitive to that. But I'm also very, very dedicated to the discipline I'm involved in.''

In 2005, the district provided drug counseling services to 345 students. That number has increased by about 25 percent each year, Smith said. Last school year, the figure hit 507.

The district is now on pace to exceed that figure this school year, as the number of cases had climbed to about 400 by last week.

There has also been an upward trend in cases involving prescription pills, Smith said. Roughly 60 percent of this year's cases involved prescription pill abuse, either alone or in conjunction with other drugs such as marijuana and alcohol, Smith said. The latter two drugs make up the bulk of the other 40 percent or so.

"We have high incidence of drug use on the school level because it reflects what's going on in the community," Smith said.

In 2008, an 18-year-old student at Nature Coast Technical High School was arrested and taken to the Hernando County Jail after a teacher found a bottle of pills containing 16 propoxyphene pills — a narcotic pain reliever — and two Tylenol with codeine in her purse, according to an arrest report.

The girl told the school resource officer that the pills belonged to her mother. She was charged with possession of a controlled substance and placed on a 10-day suspension from school.

A 15-year-old Central High student was arrested about the same time, accused of distributing Klonopin pills to other students. The student, who was also charged with possession of marijuana, later admitted that she had done the same thing the previous week and that she had received money for some of the pills.

Last month, the Sheriff's Office noted that more people had died of drug-related reasons (135) than traffic accidents (127) over the past three-and-a-half years in Hernando.

Among 12th-graders nationwide, eight of the 13 most commonly abused drugs (excluding tobacco and alcohol) were prescription or over-the-counter medications, according to the 2009 edition of an annual survey funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. More than half of those drugs were given to the students or were purchased from a friend or relative, the survey found.

The availability of prescription medication is a main factor, Chief Michael Maurer of the Hernando Sheriff's Office told community leaders at the Hernando Chamber of Commerce's Summit for Youth last September.

"It's not like they have to go to a street corner," Maurer said. "They're going to your pill cabinet and taking a few here and there."

Drug prevention efforts in Hernando County were dealt a blow this year when the Sheriff's Office, faced with a tight budget, cut the DARE program.

Smith insists that the school district's efforts are having an impact.

"It's the prevalence of these drugs," she said. "Prevention is doing its job as far as (passing on) the knowledge of the dangers and the consequences, but some kids are bypassing that because they feel the first time they use, it doesn't matter, it's not a big deal."

The district is seeing more cases involving students using drugs to try to fit in or ward off bullies, Smith said. And, she added, "We have kids who cannot stop even when they're aware of the dangers."

In many cases, students are required to participate in the program in the wake of a drug-related offense, Smith said. Other families seek help voluntarily.

Central High principal Joe Clifford said a counselor comes to his school almost every day.

"It's just one of the multitude of support services that are necessary for kids in the 21st century," Clifford said. "We have a problem in our society with substance abuse, and we need to make sure kids get the proper messages."

The district's new counselor will coordinate Project ALERT, a nationally recognized drug prevention curriculum for middle schoolers. Students learn the effects of drug abuse and use role playing and skits to practice saying no.

The program will target eighth-graders with the goal of reaching kids by the time they turn 13, Smith said.

"We're finding that is when they begin to use drugs," she said.

When the grant money runs out next year, the district will likely try to find other grant dollars to fund the counselor position and ALERT program. If that doesn't happen, the School Board will have to decide whether to absorb the cost.

And there is still the looming loss of the federal entitlement funding.

The problem could be addressed in the coming months as the district crafts next year's budget, assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson said. The decision would ultimately fall to the School Board.

"It would be a tremendous loss," Jackson said. "Those services are needed in the district."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando school district faces crisis in funding drug counseling for students 05/19/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 8:07pm]
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