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Study shows student drug use at "crisis' levels in Hernando

Officials are surprised by the numbers, which show the county's schools are higher than the state average in use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

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.

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.

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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