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Paynesville Press - March 13, 2002

High school gets tougher on drugs

By Michael Jacobson

An upswing in drug use at the high school this year has principal John Janotta alarmed. Enough, so that in February, he raised the issue with the school board, warning that he planned to be more aggressive in dealing with the growing problem.

"People are getting more bold," he told the board. "Consequently, we've been watching more, and we've had more busts."

There have already been a couple suspensions this year related to drugs, Janotta told the Press in a later interview, and more are possible, as are expulsions.

"The fact is there's an area of concern," said Janotta. "We need to alert everyone to what's happening. Everyone needs to take a good look, do their role, and make Paynesville and Paynesville schools a good place to be."

"We're going to be on our toes, and we're going to have staff on their toes," he added. "If we're going to err, we're not going to sit around and wonder. We're going to check it out."

This emphasis on investigating possible drug use was one of Janotta's prime motivations in informing the school board of the problem. He wanted to let the board members know that he planned to be aggressive and keep them aware of what was happening in case they heard any complaints from parents.

"You're not going to get the most out of your life if you're involved with drugs," Janotta explained. "It's as simple as that. Certainly, you're not going to get the most out of school."

Drug use statistics According to the latest statistics from the Minnesota Student Survey (a wide-ranging survey that is administered to sixth, ninth, and 12th graders across the state every three years, most recently in the spring of 2001), Paynesville Area High School is still below most state averages in terms of drug use.

Keeping drug use among PAHS students at less than state averages is something that Janotta aims to do.

One worry is that PAHS surpassed state averages for drug use in ninth grade males, while still being below state averages for ninth grade females and seniors of both genders.

A second worry is that local students were more likely to use alcohol than state averages, according to the survey, both as ninth graders and as seniors.

And a third worry are some troublesome statistics about drug use before, during, and after school. The survey reported that 22 percent of the males in last year's senior class had used drugs or alcohol, at least once, before coming to school. Janotta cited this statistic to the school board in February.

Higher percentages of both ninth grade males and females had ever used drugs or alcohol during school and immediately after school, too.

Paynesville is not alone in facing the problem of drug use, according to Paynesville Police Chief Tony Schmitt. "It's a community problem, county problem, state problem, and national problem. It's not just us," he said. "It's everywhere."

Student reactions
In order to get a student perspective on this problem, the Press met with eight high school students to discuss their observations. In exchange for their honesty, the Press granted them anonymity for this story.

The students agreed that drugs are evident in school and available. "I would know how to get drugs before beer," said one student.

"I don't think there's a person in school who wouldn't know how to get it...who wouldn't know who to ask," agreed another student.

The availability of drugs does not shock Janotta, who pointed out that various law enforcement agencies found three meth labs in the area within a month just a year ago. "If people want it, they're going to find it," he said.

A wide variety of drugs are used these days, and they are stronger than in previous generations, Janotta said. Drug use includes marijuana, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, household inhalants, and more. "If you can imagine it, it's here," said one student.

Just as the statistics indicate, the students' viewpoint is that drug use is more common in males than females. And, echoing the one statistic where PAHS surpassed the state averages, their impression was use was growing in the younger grades at PAHS. "Last year's seniors would party on weekends and drink," said one upperclassman. "Now you see freshmen and sophomores smoking dope before school."

School solutions
Another point of agreement among the students interviewed by the Press was that drugs are a tough problem to deal with. Drugs, they felt, were more common in school than alcohol, for example, because they are easy to hide. The ease in hiding them, their availability, and the lengths that some will go to use them make this a tough problem to address. When pushed, though, the students did offer some suggestions as possible solutions.

•Since they felt that drug use at PAHS happens in secluded spots while most everyone else is occupied with class, they proposed more patrolling of the halls, bathrooms, lockerrooms, and remote areas of the school buildings and campus during class periods.

•They agreed that it was too easy to get out of class. Not just study hall, but regular class periods, using excuses like going to the bathroom, going to the office, or going to the nurse's office.

(The Press gave a list of these suggestions to Janotta last week, who already has shared them with the high school teachers at a staff meeting. "The hallways are already better," he said, "after one meeting of talking about it.")

•They proposed having smoke detectors in selected areas of the school, and Janotta has already found a possible vendor for hidden smoke detectors.

Community solutions
Not all their solutions centered on the school. After all, the school is aware of this problem because students spend a large portion of their day at school and are expected to be attentive and active while there.

The students expressed a community need for better recreational facilities, especially things that would attract youth like a skateboard park, bike track, and swimming pool. "I think if there were more things to do in this town there'd be less people who'd use drugs or alcohol," said one student.

Parents need to provide better supervision, they stressed. Parents should trust their kids until they prove unworthy, but parents still need be observant and aware.

One suggestion, which many of them said they hate personally, was parents providing their child with a cell phone and calling them every half hour to check on where they're going and what they're doing.

Parents need to communicate with their children, agreed Schmitt. "Find out what's going on in their lives," he said.

Danger signs that parents should watch closely, according to Schmitt, are slipping grades, change in friends, appetite changes, mood changes, change in personal appearance, school attendance, and financial habits. "Sometimes parents are the last to know," he said. "If they really are paying close attention to their children, they'll suspect something earlier."

Parents can have their son or daughter tested if they suspect drug use. Drug tests are available at the Paynesville Area Health Care System.

"I think a lot of parents know," said one student. "They just don't want to admit it."

Parents also need to be proactive, especially these days. The current high school students said pressure for alcohol and drugs really hit when they got in ninth grade, and might be earlier now. This means parents need to communicate with their kids while in the middle school to be preventative.

Know the Signs
The National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) advises parents to watch for the following signs to gauge if their child is using drugs or alcohol. (They note, though, to keep in mind that these symptoms may have other causes.)

•Drop in academic performance.
•Lack of interest in grooming.
•Withdrawal, isolation, depression, and fatigue.
•Aggressive, rebellious behavior.
•Excessive influence by peers.
•Hostility and lack of cooperation. •Deteriorating relationships with family.
•Change in friends.
•Loss of interest in hobbies and sports.
•Change in eating or sleeping habits.
•Evidence of drugs and paraphernalia: pipes, rolling papers, medicine bottles, eye drops, and butane lighters.
•Physical changes: red eyes, runny nose not due to a cold, wheezing, bags under eyes, frequent sore throats, and bruises from falls.

School counseling
PAHS has offered counseling on chemical use to students for years. This year, Marge McLane from the Stearns County Collaborative is spending two days a week at PAHS. She helps lead support groups for students and does individual counseling. She refers students to further treatment if necessary.

She works at PAHS on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and takes referrals from staff, parents, and students. She also gets involved when a student's chemical use leads to an infraction with the Minnesota State High School League.

The adage that high school are the best years of your life is not always true, warned McLane. "We think students don't have a lot of stress, but it is stressful," she explained.

She believes that chemical use is a personal choice. "'There's nothing to do in Paynesville.' I hear that over and over," she said, with little sympathy. "They can do the same things sober."

Getting that message across is increasing in importance at PAHS. Paynesville has had its share of tragedy in the past, Janotta noted, and he hopes the community can address this problem before it comes to any of that.

"It seems too often it takes a crisis to make positive things happen," he said, "but then those parents move on and we need another tragedy to learn the hard lessons."

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