An alarming jump in the number of suspension so far this year can be attributed to an increase in prescription drug abuse, according to school officials.
Suspensions have increased to 70 from 40 for the same time last year, despite a reduction in suspensions for disruption and defiance.
But Rio–which continues to have the lowest suspension rate among San Juan high schools and a rate well below the state average–is not alone in seeing an increase in prescription drug abuse.
A University of Michigan study, released Oct. 28, reported that one in 10 teens treated in the emergency room had abused painkillers and sedatives.
The study, published in the current edition of Pediatrics, reports that 10.4 of teens receiving emergency medical treatment for non-drug related problems such as sprained ankles admitted to abusing prescription painkillers and sedatives like Valium and Oxycontin in the past year. Most of the teens did not have prescriptions for the drugs, researchers said.
“These drugs have become a problem because of the availability” said Vice Principal Chuck Whitaker. “Everyone has them at home. To take two, three, no one would notice.”
Indeed, researcher say that a large part of the problem is that parents now have more prescriptions. Other studies in the past year have pointed out that prescription drug abuse is an epidemic among adults. Many kids are taking their cues from their parents.
The Partnership at Drugfree.org and MetLife Foundation confirmed that one in four teens have misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime – a 33 percent increase over the past five years.
“This data makes it very clear: the problem is real, the threat immediate, and the situation is not poised to get better,” Steve Pasierb, President and CEO of The Partnership at Drugfree.org, said in a statement.
According to the recent Monitoring the Future study, prescription drugs are the second-most abused category of drugs after marijuana. The study is the nation’s largest survey of drug use.
A student who asked not to be identified said that marijuana is still a prevalent issue. “People are bold,” he said. “They smoke in the bathrooms. They smoke on campus.”
And, like pills, marijuana has gotten easier and more casual to consume.
Vaporization pens, which are small and produce little smoke, are the “most widely used ways of getting high,” the student said.
But administrators say that marijuana use is still easier to detect than pill use and may therefore be easier to control.
“If they smell like pot, it is easy to catch them,” said Vice Principal Tanya Bringuel.
At a recent staff meeting, the issue of prescription drug abuse was made clear to the teachers. Bringuel asked teachers for their help in spotting students who appear to be high.
“That’s how we normally catch students,” Bringuel said. “One of the staff lets us know, ‘Hey, something is up with this kid.’”
But that is not the only way students are caught for drug abuse.
“Sometimes a concerned student will come in and let us know,” Briguel said.
“Other times, they get called in for some other unrelated issue, and we search them and find drugs.”
New drugs pose new dangers, experts say.
“Students don’t realize what they are doing,” Whitaker said. “Prozac and Adderall for fun? It is scary.”
Unlike alcohol or marijuana, which are normally consumed over time, a students can take several pills at once posing a high risk of overdose, administrators said.
“The biggest problem that we have is Norco,” Bringuel said. “It is like double strength Vicodin. If you take five, it will kill you.”
Norco is a narcotic used to treat and assuage moderate to severe pain. It is a habit forming drug: addictive. These drugs are dangerous and life-threatening if taken in heavy amounts and are not meant for taking at one’s leisure.
“Parents fear drugs like cocaine or heroin and want to protect their kids,” said Pasierb, from the Partnership at Drugfree.org. “But the truth is that when misused and abused, medicines – especially stimulants and opioids – can be every bit as dangerous and harmful as those illicit street drugs. Medicine abuse is one of the most significant and preventable adolescent health problems facing our families today.”
His organization focuses on teen drug abuse because the added risk that teens face.
“Kids who begin using at an early age are more likely to struggle with substance use disorders when compared to those who might start using after the teenage years,” he said.
The Michigan study found additional risks.
Accounting for demographic difference, researchers found a link between non-medical prescription drug abuse among teens and other substance abuse, drinking and driving or riding with a driver who is drinking.
Efforts to stem the flow of these drugs isn’t only found in the main office.
Phil Montbriand wants students in his Biotechnology and Ethics class to get involved educating other students.
The class has been discussing prescription drug abuse over the past week.
“We determined that these drugs are distributed like none other,” senior Sam Calvert said. “About 42 percent gain access from medicine cabinets at home, and 49 percent get the drugs from a friend.”
The class was alarmed by the how little teens understand about the risks of abusing pills, Calvert said.
“The scariest thing about prescription drugs is that people view them as ‘OK’ to abuse because they’re distributed by doctors,” “But there’s a reason you need a prescription.”