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Student drug use called "crisis'

A recent survey reveals alcohol, tobacco and drug use in Hernando schools is higher than the state average.

One-tenth of Hernando County middle school students went to school drunk or high during the past school year, and one-third of high school students have tried an illicit drug other than marijuana, according to a recent study that shows Hernando teens use alcohol, drugs and tobacco at a rate higher than the state average.

The report _ prepared by the Florida Department of Children and Families after surveying children throughout the state, including more than 1,200 Hernando middle and high school students _ is raising eyebrows. Especially among local law enforcement and health officials, who expressed surprise at the county's elevated results.

"Traditionally, we thought our problems were no worse than anywhere else. That's the standard line, and you accept it _ until you read empirical data like this," said Sheriff Richard Nugent. "To me, this is a crisis for us. There is an unequivocal need for us to do something more."

According to the report, Hernando County teens have tried alcohol at a "much higher rate" than most students around the state, and also surpass the average in the use of marijuana and cigarettes. They have tried drugs such as heroin, hallucinogens, depressants and crack cocaine at a slightly higher rate than the average Florida student. And the survey indicated that use of almost all of those substances in the month before the time of the the survey was higher among Hernando students than the state average.

Forty-three percent of Hernando County middle students said they had tried alcohol, and about 23 percent of middle school-age kids reported they had used an illicit drug. By high school, 74 percent of students report they have used alcohol, and about half have tried some other type of drug.

Some Hernando officials said they were not surprised about the level of substance use, simply the fact that Hernando's statistics were higher than the state average. Others pointed out that the results depend on the honesty of the students questioned.

Rebecca Martin, a county health educator, said she anticipated the high use of tobacco products. (About 20 percent of all Hernando middle and high school students reported smoking within 30 days of being surveyed, versus 15 percent statewide.) Traditionally, she said, cigarette and chewing-tobacco use is greater among adults in rural areas, and that translates to higher teenage use.

"Teens are influenced by what they grow up with and what they see around them," said Martin, who also organizes the county's Students Working Against Tobacco, or SWAT, team.

Nor was Martin surprised that more girls than boys in the county smoke cigarettes.

"That is a trend we are seeing. Teenage girls are really conscious about their looks, and they are using (cigarettes) as a weight-control device," she said.

In response to the study, Martin said she is going to try to work with sports coaches at the public schools to have them educate students on how tobacco products affect athletic performance.

Nugent has bigger plans. The sheriff wants to start a comprehensive law enforcement-based drug education program for middle-school students.

"We've done some hit-and-miss programs, but nothing intensive. And we haven't done much on alcohol," he said. "I don't think you can lay (the blame) for this all on law enforcement, but we need to take the lead here."

What is to blame for Hernando students' high usage levels?

In trying to determine causes, the study asked students about several risk factors. It found that Hernando teens feel more detached from their communities and schools than the average Florida student.

Hernando students reported that their communities are more disorganized and unsafe, and said that adults have not sent them a particularly strong anti-drug message.

The levels at which Hernando teens complained about these factors exceeded not only the state average, but also the average for counties with populations similar to Hernando's.

Given the results, surveyors recommended that Hernando parents, schools and law enforcement officials do a better job educating and supervising the county's youth.

Sharon Rose, a division manager at the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute, said many resources already exist for teens and adults.

Her organization does prevention, intervention and treatment work throughout the community, either by coming to schools to talk to groups, counseling at-risk children one-on-one or treating students caught using drugs.

There are constraints on what can be done, however. Rose said one successful program at Brooksville Elementary School puts a full-time counselor in a classroom with at-risk children.

The counselor helps the teacher and acts as a therapist throughout the school day. The only cost of the program is the counselor's salary, but there is not enough money to expand the program to other classrooms and schools, she said.

"The results we have with their program are amazing . . . but we couldn't do it all over the place," she said.

The school system also has a Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program that provides education in health classes, as well as anti-drug rallies, intervention and testing, said program coordinator Janice Smith.

Smith, who helped administer the survey throughout Hernando, called the results "enlightening" and said they validated "the concerns I've been voicing all along."

She added, however, that drugs and alcohol are a community problem and that the most important aspect of education falls to parents. She stressed that parents need to know who their children's friends are, establish limits and set a good example themselves.

According to the study, Hernando teens were more likely to have a family history of anti-social behavior than average, and their parents were likely to have more favorable attitudes toward drug and alcohol use than average.

"The schools are doing their part, but it's up to the parents to start teaching and enforcing these lessons," Smith said. "These are their children."

To read more

To read the full Florida Department of Children and Families report on teenage alcohol, tobacco and drug use, go to http://www.state.fl.us/

cfweb/ on the Internet and click on the Youth Substance Abuse Survey link. A statewide report and reports for every county in Florida are available.

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