SEMINOLE — Law enforcement gained 160 allies Sunday in the fight against prescription drug abuse: local members of the Boys Scouts of America.
The newest crime fighters are 11- to 17-year-old Scouts from the Tampa Bay area who gathered at Blessed Sacrament Church for training to earn crime prevention merit badges.
Organizers say the voluntary course, which teaches boys about different types of crime, being good witnesses and reporting illegal activity, has been around for years. But increasing deaths and criminal cases stemming from prescription drug abuse led Dan Zsido, a leader of Seminole's Troop 431, to add an element that zeroes in on the phenomenon.
For months, Zsido — a Pinellas County sheriff's sergeant with 11 years of experience in narcotics, including the last six solely dedicated to prescription drugs — has been traveling the county coaching Scout troops on the dangers of illicit drugs. He decided to open the call Sunday to boys across the region, as well as their parents, siblings and relatives.
"We find too often that the population is uneducated (about prescription drugs abuse), and they're playing Russian roulette with their lives," Zsido said. "We're trying to plant seeds so that hopefully when these boys come to a crossroads in their lives, they make the right decision. We're trying to make a dent in it by being proactive." Most teens who use prescription drugs to get high find them in a relative's or friend's medicine cabinet, Zsido said.
Parents at Sunday's training said the event was especially timely given police speculation that "Jazz," a legal herbal concoction that mimics the effects of marijuana, may have played a role in the recent drowning death of 19-year-old Palm Harbor University High School graduate Logan Kushner. Julie Longen said Kushner's death came as her 11-year-old son, Luke, was learning about drugs in a sixth-grade class.
Luke and five other boys in his troop discussed the tragedy on the way to Sunday's training, she said. One boy commented on how Jazz is legally sold at gas stations, but still isn't safe. "It just really enforced what they're learning at school and at home, and now we're here," said Longen, 46, of Palm Harbor.
The Scouts laughed and raised their hands to ask questions as Zsido used interactive videos and moving graphics during the session to highlight topics including gangs and staying alert. However, many were stunned into silence as Zsido showed slides of three local victims of drug abuse. Each showed a smiling boy wearing a Scout uniform, pictured years before he began experimenting with the drugs that led to the untimely death.
Troop 320 members Justin Kindred, Patrick Garcia and Skylor Wieland said they signed up for Sunday's training because they're in the criminal justice academy at Pinellas Park High. The boys, 15-year-old sophomores, said they hear classmates talk daily about marijuana and alcohol use. But they said the presentation opened their eyes. "It just kind of shows you it can be anyone," Skylor said.