Drug Abuse Awareness
by Stacie N. Galang - April 05, 2012
Sherrie and Aaron Rubin and Jodi Barberspoke to San Clemente High students.
Sherrie Rubin and her son Aaron Rubin talk about the impact of his overdose to students at San Clemente High.
This is the second in a two-part series examining the impact of drug abuse in San Clemente and the surrounding community.
It’s a common nickname for San Clemente High School though not at all unique to this city or this high school, noted Principal George Duarte. The Avenida Pico school has worked diligently for years to keep students safe and away from the temptations of drugs, offering random, voluntary drug testing, discussing drug abuse and addiction in health classes and bringing speakers and assemblies like the presentation of documentary Overtaken with its backers Jodi Barber and Christine Brant.
In addition to schools, law enforcement, counselors and the court system all have programs to keep teens and young adults drug free. Nevertheless, school officials understand not every kid takes home the message.
“I think that drugs are more prevalent than what we’re catching,” Duarte said.
The recent showing of Overtaken at the high school created a buzz among students whose teachers had the option of bringing them to three assemblies at the Triton Center last month.
“Everybody was talking about it,” said sophomore Marie Goggins. “Everyone got to hear about it even though they didn’t see it.”
Barber and Brant also brought speakers Aaron Rubin and his mother Sherrie Rubin, Aisha Armer and Cole Edwards. Their powerful first-person accounts of the effects of their drug use left an impression on students.
“I thought it was more real than any movie they show us in high school or health class,” said sophomore Connor Fortmeier.
The movie’s use of Orange County people also struck a chord with those watching.
“It wasn’t random people,” said freshman Grant Meyer. “It was people in our area. It was very close to home for us.”
At some point during the assemblies, students were asked if they knew someone using drugs. About one third indicated they were aware of a friend who was abusing.
To Fortmeier, it was no surprise.
“I think parents are in denial,” he said, noting the common nickname for San Clemente High.
Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Rod Valdez, the school resource officer, witnessed the rise in heroin abuse. Three years ago, the school resource officer estimated five students had been identified as using the highly addictive opiate.
“It’s the most addicting drug we deal with,” Valdez said.
Their teachers noticed the students constantly falling asleep in class. They also displayed other hallmarks of heroin abuse. When confronted, the students admitted they had been using the drug.
He worked with parents to get their children into a drug rehabilitation program.
The first obstacle was alerting moms and dads to the problem.
“Parents weren’t even aware that their kids were even on heroin,” Valdez said.
These days, heroin is cheap and readily available, especially given the 75-mile distance from San Clemente to Mexico, a major source of the drug.
More often, students start with marijuana. On average, between four and five students are caught in possession of the drug at San Clemente High School and the city’s three middle schools every week, Valdez said.
Beyond pot, students have graduated to what’s called “pharma” parties, Valdez said. Kids raid unsuspecting relatives’ medicine cabinets, pilfer prescription pills and contribute them like candy into bowls at the gatherings, the resource officer said. Partygoers typically drink and pop the pills, he said.
“It’s a South County trend,” Valdez said. “It’s becoming more popular.”
Students carry on about the parties on Facebook and other social media, he said.
“Peer pressure’s a big thing in high school,” Valdez said. “It’s a popularity contest.”
Student caught with illegal drugs on campus face a host of disciplinary action, often starting with referral to Capistrano Unified School District’s Alternatives to Suspension program.
When students graduate to harder drugs, the consequences can be fatal.
From 2009 to 2011, accidental overdose deaths in Orange County totaled 794 and of those, 388 were from prescription drugs, according to data from the county Coroner’s Office. In each of those years, the deaths from prescription drugs remained steady. In 2009, death by prescription drug overdose was 131, in 2010 it was 122 and in 2011 it was 135. Overall, accidental overdose deaths dropped by 40 from 2009 to 2010.
Some addicts who face criminal charges may land in Drug Court, one of the county’s eight collaborative courts. Defendants must be eligible and receive a referral to the special court, which takes a team approach with the district attorney, the defense attorney, the probation department and a representative from the county’s Health Care Agency, according to Paul Shapiro of Superior Court in Orange County.
Shapiro, the collaborative courts officer, said defendants must be in the program for a minimum of 18 months and agree to certain programs, including drug testing, probation visits and adherence to a life plan that consists of schooling or employment.
The defendant pleads guilty to his applicable felony charge, which can be lifted with successful treatment of the program, the court officer said.
The program’s success keeps participants out of the criminal justice system and positive contributors to society. In 2011, 218 people entered Orange County’s Drug Court. Of those, the largest group — or 110 people — admitted to using methamphetamine, another 55 used heroin, 19 used marijuana and 11 used prescription drugs. The rest were a combination of alcohol and other drugs.
“The purpose of all of this is to help them succeed in the program,” Shapiro said.
Michael Hoffman, a doctor of addictive disorders and author Life after Rehab: Volume 1, How to Stay Sober in the Outside World, said prescription drugs are easily accessible and readily available. He has personally seen the jump in opiate abuse in the last three years.
“The kids are saying that doctors, in their opinion, provide them liberally,” said Hoffman, who took an informal survey this week during two group sessions.
Hoffman works at treatment centers Mission for Michael in Dana Point and Able to Change in San Juan Capistrano. He asked 14 residential patients, ages 18 to 25, in two, hour-long group sessions about area trends, “a good cross section.”
The addictions center around opiates and amphetamines in both the legally prescribed medications and the illicit versions. Patients are younger these days, he noted.
“The brain isn’t fully developed until the mid 20s,” he said.
A youngster taking drugs can change the biochemistry of he brain, he noted. The mid-section of the brain secretes abnormally high amounts of the pleasure chemical dopamine. Over time, drug use also erodes the decision making part of the frontal cortex, Hoffman said.
“In other words, an addict’s brain is telling them they have to have the drug to survive,” he said.
The good news is the effects of drugs can generally be repaired by abstinence from them and the introduction of healthy thoughts and behaviors.
In cases of extreme use of drugs or alcohol, a person can develop irreversible neurological damage called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome or wet brain. The kids have a name for it: permafried or all shot out, he said.
Taking a Stand
Valdez, the resource officer, said parents need to lock up their prescription drugs and alcohol in a portable gun safe so their children don’t gain access to it. He also advised parents to drug test their children as a way to find out a problem before it gets out of hand.
Valdez encouraged parents wait up for them to come home, check them when they arrive and follow up after a party by asking who attended.
“Communicate with your kids,” he said. “Talk to them. Ask them questions.”
He said parents should check their child’s Facebook accounts, Internet activity and phone records.
“Don’t be naïve,” he said. “Don’t think that your kid isn’t going to do what other kids do.”
If parents suspect their high schooler has a drug problem, Valdez said they could call him at the high school or any school administration.
Duarte said on average between 1,200 to 1,500 of the 2,900 students at San Clemente High participate in the drug testing.
“It can be a powerful deterrent,” he said. “We try and remain vigilant. We would much rather deter than catch a kid.”
The Parent Teacher Student Association at San Clemente High has scheduled a parent night to watch Overtaken and talk about the issue of illegal drugs Tuesday, May 8 at 6:30 p.m. at San Clemente High’s Triton Center.
Read more: San Clemente Times - Drug Abuse Awareness