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YOUNG AND ON DRUGS MIDDLE-SCHOOLERS FALL PREY TO EVERYTHING FROM COUGH SYRUP TO METH.

Byline: JUDY O'ROURKE Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA -- Specialists who work with local children in therapeutic programs and in the schools say drug and alcohol use among teens and adolescents is skewing younger and younger.

Statistics are hard to come by, but workers in the trenches say more 13- and 14-year-olds are paying a price for tangling with off-limits substances.

``We're getting called more and more by the middle schools to do drug tests for kids, and we're coming in and doing early interventions on kids a lot,'' said Cary Quashen, founder of the nonprofit ACTION parent and teen support program. ``We're finding pot, alcohol and over-the-counter drugs like (cough medicine) seem to be real big with young people.''

The group conducts programs in local high schools, and the for-profit Action Family Counseling program operates nine intensive outpatient programs and two residential treatment centers.

Quashen said teen girls who opt for methamphetamine to help them lose weight underestimate its pull.

``They start with diet,'' he said. ``But the euphoria becomes emotionally addictive, and it only takes one time to be addicted by crystal meth emotionally.''

The drug is easy to come by, and it's cheap. In contrast to imported drugs such as cocaine, meth can be formulated in a van or an apartment down the street. Quashen said some batches are tainted with battery acid, rat poison or arsenic.

Getting caught with drugs or alcohol, or selling them on junior or senior high school campuses, results in suspension, intra-district transfers or expulsion. The man who oversees suspensions and expulsions in the 22,000-student William S. Hart Union High School District said the number of violators has been creeping up districtwide, though figures are not yet available for the current school year.

``It appears, though I can't say to what extent yet, drug and alcohol violations are higher this year,'' said Richard Freifeld, director of student services for the district. ``It's a definite issue out there.''

In 2003-04, 16 students were expelled; in 2004-05, it dropped to 12; but in 2005-06, 25 students were expelled.

All students caught with banned substances are suspended for at least five days. In 2003-04, 118 students were suspended; in 2004-05 the number climbed to 145; and in 2005-06, 200 students were suspended.

District officials take into account a student's record, whether it's a first or second offense, and other extenuating circumstances before meting out punishment. High-schoolers are not the only ones being dismissed or lobbed outside their comfort zones to different schools.

Of the 200 drug- or alcohol-related suspensions this past year, 154 went to high-schoolers, and 46 were for junior-high students. That is up substantially from past years: In 2003-04, 14 suspensions were issued to junior-high-schoolers; and in 2004-05, 19 junior-high students were suspended.

Some of the increase may be attributed to the school district's growth in the past few years. While marijuana and alcohol are most commonly confiscated, Freifeld said, they are being joined by a growing number of other substances.

``Prescription drugs that don't belong to the students (are popular), and a number of kids are using Coricidin as an intoxicant,'' he said.

Freifeld said the district is attuned to solving underlying problems, and students are often referred to ACTION or the Santa Clarita Valley Child and Family Center's Drug and Alcohol Prevention Education Curriculum program for help.

A former drug dealer who attended local high schools and sold drugs on the premises -- and is now clean -- said many of his customers were seventh- and eighth-graders referred by their friends or older siblings. They would rendezvous in secluded wash areas or public restrooms.

``If the older sibling is doing it, it's more likely the younger one will do it, too,'' he said. He sold pot for $15 a gram, which filled about one-fourth of a sandwich bag, and a $20 bag of meth would yield eight to 10 hits.

Quashen said problems often begin with working families whose offspring have a lot of time on their hands and lots of disposable income. Jamie Wilder, a marriage and family therapist, said young friends with money often share drugs with friends who can't afford them.

Ari Levy, a clinical psychologist and executive program director at the Child and Family Center, said some parents may minimize the teen's drug use by labeling it experimentation.

``When you have someone who's under the age of 15, 16, who is involved with using substances, that's not experimentation,'' he said. ``(In years past), experimentation occurred in college, maybe late high school. When you're talking about those who are younger, that's not experimentation, that's a problem.''

If developing youths use drugs, said Levy, it may color how they deal with their lives as adults and how they handle stress and emotions.

``When they're adults, they may lean back on the substances,'' he said.

On Thursday, the National Institute on Drug Abuse released an annual survey that monitors substance-use trends among eighth- through 12th-graders. It showed past-month use of illegal drugs had dipped 23percent since 2001, but misuse of prescription drugs and nonmedical use of over-the-counter drugs is a big concern.

In the first national survey of nonmedical use of cold or cough medicine, the survey found 4.2percent of eighth-graders reported using cold or cough medicines during the past year to get high, the group reported. The Monitoring the Future survey, where students self-report use, has helped the government measure drug and alcohol use and attitudes among adolescents and teens since 1975.

Wilder said parents often don't understand the unwitting role they play in their kids' under-the-radar use of over-the-counter drugs.

``That's what kids can get easily at home and from other kids -- Coricidin, Benadryl, Vicodin,'' she said. ``A lot of studies show parents speaking to their kids about drugs, parents monitoring their kids -- these are the kids who will have less problems with substance abuse.''

judy.orourke(at)dailynews.com

(661) 257-5255
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 26, 2006
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