BRANDON — Hillsborough County schools may be on their winter holiday break, but high school resource officers spent Monday learning about new ways to successfully handle student alcohol and drug abuse.
Their education comes at a time when the number of adolescents in Hillsborough County using marijuana has risen to 11.2 percent.
Many of them are also combining pot with alcohol, over-the-counter medications, inhalants, and synthetic, manmade forms of marijuana known as Spice or K2, which are legal, but can be stronger than natural cannabis.
To prepare for the coming semester and meet these emerging drug trends head on, county resource officers have been given an educational tool called Safe, Smart & Successful in High School, which they received during a training session at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office on Falkenburg Road.
The new high school curriculum will offer a fresh approach to better informing students with relevant information, according to Gary White, associate director of the Hillsborough County Anti Drug Alliance.
"We wanted something current, and up to date, and we wanted videos where kids tell their stories, not adults," said White, who hosted a similar training program in August for middle school resource officers said. "Kids will not listen to something that's not relevant to them. They need what is current and what they can get online."
The alliance prepared the kit in partnership with Phoenix House, a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization which serves teenagers battling substance abuse. Phoenix House, which helped subsidize the resource officers' training materials, operates adolescent outpatient treatment programs in Brandon and Tampa.
Besides patrolling the high schools on a daily basis, resource officers often conduct classroom presentations where they can interact directly with the students and dispel myths about drug and alcohol abuse that tend to circulate among student peers.
The officers received a curriculum of lesson plans and interactive student activities, fact sheets, a resource guide and the latest videos about underage drinking and deadly drugged driving.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there from people the students look up to using marijuana or alcohol so they have a different perception of it," said Pedro Colon, a school resource officer at Leto High School for the past seven years. "The best we can do is try to get the correct information to them, and hopefully they'll listen to us and take some of that home with them."
The material also covered e-cigs, electronic cigarettes popular among adolescents as early as middle school, and the problems related to smoking hookah, a specially made flavored tobacco.
While Florida law prohibits minors under age 18 from possessing or using tobacco, the Hillsborough County School District has gone a step further in banning all staff and students from using tobacco and nicotine-delivered devices, such as hookahs and e-cigarettes on campus.
However, Richard Robinson, a Tampa Bay Technical school resource officer, says he's starting to see a growth in hookah use as opposed to marijuana.
"Students don't want to get kicked out of school and get arrested because there's no arrest in smoking hookah," Robinson said. "Even though you're not supposed to smoke it on school property, they may have it in their cars and we don't know about it. Teachers shouldn't do it on school property and they shouldn't let the students know they are doing it either."
At Phoenix House, 93 percent of the adolescents they counsel use marijuana as their primary drug, and about 79 percent of them mix pot with alcohol, over-the-counter cold medications that contain the cough suppressant DXM, and prescription pills they find at home.
"A lot of prescription medications the students are getting come from friends and family members; also their parents' or their grandparents' medicine cabinets," said Sonya Bufe, clinical director for outpatient services at Phoenix House.
Bufe says that adolescents attending their Tampa Bay outpatient centers typically spend between four to six months working on a multitude of emotional and social issues, besides drug and alcohol consumption.
Contact Kathryn Moschella at [email protected]