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One in Eight Springfield Middle, High School Students Has Abused Prescription Drugs

Cough Syrup

This year, schools across the Ozarks are cracking down on a problem that, for many years, has flown under the radar. In this first segment in our two-part series on back-to-school safety, KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports on a new trend in drug abuse in our middle and high schools.

[Sound: Counseling and Guidance Center]

Here at the counseling headquarters for Springfield Public Schools on Atlantic Street, crayons and notebooks line the countertops. Things are hopping in preparation of Tuesday: the first day of school.

Rhonda Mammen, the coordinator of counseling, says all counselors are aware of an alarming trend involving kids and prescription drug abuse.

"Many times, it’s the older generations’ medications that children and young adults are latching onto, so that they can use for recreational purposes," Mammen said.

One of the more disturbing facets to this trend is how early it’s starting.

Mammen says across Springfield’s middle schools alone, there’s been an increase in suspensions for kids abusing prescription drugs. And it’s not just prescription drugs…it’s over-the-counter meds, too.

“We have also had instances where students will be in possession of over-the-counter medication, and be sharing that with other students in the restrooms between classes. They may be drinking bottles of cough syrup, or thinking that they can get a high off of mixing different over-the-counter medications,” she said.

The Missouri Safe and Drug Free Schools 2010 survey was given to kids grades 6-11.

Springfield kids were asked the question: Have you ever used prescription medication that was not prescribed for you by a doctor?

Almost one in eight responded by saying “Yes.” That’s a higher rate than the statewide response, which was closer to one in 10.

And as for over-the-counter meds being used for non-medical reasons, more than nine percent of Springfield students grades 6 through 11 admitted to using. That’s also higher than the state average of about 7.5 percent.

“We don’t have any idea, you know, if there’s 30 pills in that thing, or if there’s 20,” says Melissa Haddow, executive director of the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, referring to adults who keep medication around.

She says adults who have any contact with children need to keep a running inventory of exactly how many pills they have in a purse or medicine cabinet.

“I’ll bet most people who are listening to this would never know if two or three of their pills were missing every month if it was a pain reliever,” she said.

Haddow says the latest national study shows that one in every seven 9th through 12th graders has abused prescription pain relievers in the past year.

One local high school is taking a look at those statistics and trying to preemptively keep them from getting any worse.

[SOUND: Voices chatting in high school entrance]

I’ve come to Kickapoo High School, where several students are lined up at the office to register.

Moore: “Hi. I'm here to see the principal, David Schmitz. I have an appointment with him, KSMU Radio...”Office: "Okay. And your name is?..." [sound fades under]

“There are no boundaries, from a socioeconomic standpoint,” says principal David Schmitz.

He's created a student advisory board he meets with regularly, and together, he and the student board talk to random kids about the problems they’d like to fix. One topic that has come up is prescription drug abuse. Schmitz says his school is right there with all the others, and that several kids have been caught abusing prescription drugs at school.

“We ask questions about where it came from. And that would be a message to parents, too—is when we hear, ‘Oh, it’s from dad’s back surgery six months ago,’ or ‘It’s from mom’s knee surgery.’ Or the kid says, ‘It’s from my surgery, and so I made 10 bucks a pill,’” he said.

With his help, Kickapoo is developing a confidential text hotline so students can report when one of their peers is high or abusing. It’s anonymous, he said, because there’s peer pressure not to tell.

"They have slang, like ‘Oxys,’ or ‘Hydros.’ And so, really, those narcotics are medications that they can get their hands on," Schmitz said.

"Youth are always looking at their parents, whether we think that or not," says Melissa Haddow.

“We need to be careful how we talk about using medication. We should be using it for the reasons it was intended and not just, ‘Oh, I’m stressed out. I think I need to take a pill.’ That sends a bad message. We need to do a better job, all of us, of getting rid of our expired medication," Haddow said.

She says parents need to sit down and talk to their kids about the dangers of overdosing, mixing, or becoming addicted to medicinal drugs.

Haddow: "They’re very powerful narcotic pain relievers, and they act as a depressant, so they slow down the body. And in high doses—even in a single use—you can take it the first time, but if you take enough of it, it can kill you. If it’s combined with over-the-counter drugs, such as antihistimines, or tranquilizers, or alcohol, then negative effects, including death, are far more likely."Moore: "How does a parent begin that conversation with his or her child? It’s not exactly your typical dinner conversation."Haddow: "Well, first of all, parents need to become educated. And then I think they just simply need to just sit down and say, maybe, ‘I heard something on the radio today about prescription drug abuse, and I didn’t realize that one of seven [nationally abuses prescription drugs]. Tell me, do you know friends? Do you think it’s one out of seven here in town? And that probably will get the teen to begin the conversation. That’s a great way to have the conversation. "

Back at Springfield Public Schools, Rhonda Mammen says Springfield’s middle schools saw 59 suspensions last year for abusing drugs, the vast majority involving drugs that were intended to be used as medicine.

And those are just the ones who got caught.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

TAG:Join us Tuesday morning at 7:30 to hear how teens are risking their own safety by sending graphic text messages of themselves to their peers.