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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Making Campuses Drug-Free Topic of Brainstorming Session

Conference: Three-day event draws people from all over the nation. Some suggest that denial of abuse, by parents and schools, is a major problem.

March 02, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIMI VALLEY-One day after a state report showed that students are continuing to use and sell drugs in California public schools, a panel of educators at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library brainstormed ways to make campuses drug-free.

The suggestions Wednesday weren't new: drug tests, locker searches, after-school activities, parental involvement, peer counseling.

But the urgency was. No longer are teens smoking just cigarettes and marijuana. Experts say they are increasingly experimenting with--and becoming addicted to--crack, speed and heroin. And the tolls are alarming: teenagers dropping out of school, getting pregnant or committing suicide.

In Ventura County, about four out of every 1,000 students possessed, sold or used drugs or alcohol at school during the 1998-99 school year, according to the school safety report released Tuesday by the state Department of Education. Though local educators were not surprised by the numbers, they said school districts need to do everything they can to keep teens off drugs.

"You have got to have a lot of different techniques at your disposal to work with these kids," said Jim Compton, assistant superintendent for students' programs and services for Ventura County schools. "Hopefully one of the ways will work."

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Compton, who runs the county's Juvenile Court and community schools, said some kids respond better to counseling, but others may need more education on the health effects. Compton said seminars may not have an immediate impact on teenagers with substance abuse problems, but they do help educators come up with new ideas.

The panel on drug use in schools kicked off a three-day substance abuse conference, "Substance Abuse in the 21st Century: Positioning the Nation for Progress." The seminar was hosted by the Reagan library and the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

"This undertaking is all about children," said Joseph Califano, president of the university's center. "A child who gets to age 21 without abusing alcohol, without smoking and without using drugs is virtually unlikely ever to do so."

But discouraging youths from abusing drugs is not an easy undertaking. Two-thirds of high school students said drugs are kept, sold or used on campus, according to a recent study. One-half of middle school students said the same. And the problem isn't confined to urban or low-income areas. Drugs have crossed geographic and economic lines into rural and suburban towns everywhere, panelists said.

"All teens and many preteens are adrift in a sea of substances," Califano said.

Thousand Oaks residents Debbie and Leonard Goldberg, whose daughter used drugs heavily as a teenager, attended Wednesday's panel. The couple started a nonprofit organization to help treat youths who have no insurance, and now they want to open an inpatient treatment center in Ventura County.

The biggest obstacle they face is denial.

"Parents deny it's happening at home and schools deny it's happening at school," Debbie Goldberg said. "So where is it happening?"

Califano agreed, saying that parents need to stop ignoring their children's substance abuse problems, and need to work with schools and the community to help them.

"Parent power is the most underutilized weapon in the war on drugs," he said.

The conference drew about 250 doctors, police officers, clergy, academics, lobbyists, treatment providers and tobacco company executives from all over the nation to Simi Valley.

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Participants will attend nine panels on such topics as whether the entertainment industry glorifies substance abuse, the future of American drug policy, and substance abuse and the law.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," moderated the panel on drug use in schools, which included a New Orleans school principal, the head of Chicago's public schools, a Cincinnati teacher and the chairman of a national scholarship fund. The panelists shared what they believe works, and doesn't work, to keep drugs off campuses.

Districts throughout the nation have enacted zero tolerance policies on drugs and alcohol, they said. On many campuses, students who are caught with drugs and alcohol on campus are immediately suspended--or expelled.

But that isn't the answer, said Yvonne Gelpi, principal of De La Salle High School in New Orleans. Students who use drugs need help, not discipline alone. Gelpi's private school tests students for drugs by sampling their hair. Students who test positive are usually referred to counseling and treatment services.

"We are trying to change the behavior," she said. "We are not trying to throw out the kids."

Paul Vallas, who runs Chicago's public schools, said his administrators regularly check students and their lockers for drugs. The schools also provide counseling, mentoring and after-school and Saturday programs for troubled teens.

Educators are not only concerned about what happens on campus, but are also worried about what teens do off campus. Many districts recruit teens to serve as peer educators, who take on the task of urging their classmates to stay away from drugs and alcohol-at school and at home.

Sharon Draper, a Cincinnati teacher who won the National Teacher of the Year award in 1997-1998, said schools need to reward students who are avoiding the lures of alcohol and drugs.

"We punish the kids who do drugs, but what do we do for the kids who don't do drugs?" Draper said.

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