YEARS AGO, a cheerleader in my high school was caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. She was promptly divested of her pom-poms and taken off the cheering squad. It was the only ”drug incident” of the year at the school. Times have changed.
Drug and underage alcohol abuse are an epidemic, and past solutions haven’t been effective enough. Now, the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Preventions (CCSAP), also known as the 7B Drug Free Initiative, is recalibrating the standard community approach “from reaction to prevention,” according to the new Executive Director, Erika McCall. With a degree in social work and a career working with at-risk populations, McCall has, in her own words, “…a passion for prevention because I see how hard it is to deal with after the fact.”
The CCSAP coalition of parents, law enforcement, health care professionals and concerned communities is in the first year of a four-year grant focusing on prescription drug and underage alcohol abuse. Explains McCall, “We provide resources to the community in targeting these two areas of growing concern, bringing in speakers and different programs.”
“Our main philosophy is about empowering the kids so they can feel they are part of the conversation and part of the strategy,” says McCall. “Teens want decision-making power – to be involved in the ‘Why Not?’ rather than just be told ‘Do Not.’” That kind of decision isn’t made from the outside in; it’s made from the inside out.
What is the biggest inducement to teen drug abuse today? Not a drug dealer on the corner offering the first one for free. It’s social media and the Internet, according to McCall. Growing and morphing at cancerlike rates, social media is peer pressure on steroids – powerful, relentless and merciless. Within the smiling vernacular of “friends” and “chat,” the Internet promises connection, but the inverse effect is a capacity to punish with isolation. Castigation, embarrassment, false rumors and lies are avalanched upon teens who resist the new drug party culture. At precisely the age where acceptance is everything, exclusion is the most effective threat of all.
“They just can’t stand the unrelenting pressure,” says McCall. “Teens feel like they can’t escape it because they’re always attached to their cell phones and social media.”
The CCSAP coalition believes that a teen’s well-founded decision is the key element of resistance to peer pressure. “Our events prompt teens to think what drug use would look like in their life so they can arrive at and own their decision,” says McCall.
A “Reality Party” is one way CCSAP educates parents and also give the teens a participative voice. “We bring in a facilitator who does these events all over the country, and get together a group of high schoolers to re-enact a party. The kids get to share what they know – indirectly – with their parents and community, and feel a part of the prevention process.”
McCall attended a recent Reality Party event at the Sweet Magnolia Bed & Breakfast, where parents were brought in groups to view teens’ staged scenes of what kids may encounter at an innocent-sounding “party.” McCall remembers with emotion, “We saw violence, passing out, sickness, witnessed prescription drug abuse and lots of binge drinking activities. The most impactful part of it,” she recalls, “was watching the decisions the kids were making when they were intoxicated. It was a view into what could happen and what does happen.”
Where are the adults in these situations? McCall responds, “Hosting parents feel they are doing a favor hosting a party at their house where it is ‘safe’ because they take the kids’ car keys so they can’t drink and drive. But the kids find a way around it. In this staged party, we watched one teen steal their car keys back, get in the car and drive off. We saw the cops come because the kid had been in an accident.”
Another communication-building event is a “Tell It To Me Straight” dinner. “We bring teens and community members together for open communication. The kids aren’t there to make a confession to their parents,” she clarifies. “It’s more designed to be a safe place to say what’s on their mind. ‘I’m worried about this – here’s what is going on at the school… what I see at parties.’ We hope adults get an eye-opening about what teens see and experience on a daily basis.”
CCSAP is also funded by a mini-grant to education on abuse of over the- counter drugs, such as pain killers, cough medicine, anti-acids, even Tylenol. Many parents are unaware of the abuse of such drugs and equally unaware that their own bathroom cabinets may be the source.
“We’re doing the Lock Your Meds Campaign,” says McCall. “It will focus on educating parents and the community about young people who may come into your home, ask to use the bathroom, and then steal prescription medicines. They may sell the pills, or use them in a trend referred to as a ‘Skittles’ party. The kids are instructed to go through their family’s prescriptions and bring some of the pills to the party where the pills are all dumped into a bowl,” describes McCall. “Then they pass the bowl and everyone takes a handful and eats them like candy with no idea what they’re taking or the negative drug interactions.
“We also do a Drug Take-Back day,” she continues, “where people can bring their unused prescription medications to City Hall for safe disposal. A lot of times people save their medications, thinking ‘someday’ they may use them, and then their teenager or their teen’s friends take just two or three pills from a prescription bottle, and the parent has no idea the pills have been taken because the teen leaves the remaining pills in the bottle.”
Proactively, CCSAP is also seeking to partner with pharmacies to put stickers on their bags that remind the recipient to lock up their medications. “Some drugs are in such demand,” she reveals. “Possession of them makes you a target for burglary.”
An early start in the interactive, educational process on drug and alcohol abuse is now imperative. “When we had a conversation with the Idaho State Patrol about drug use and age, we were told that 12 years old is the age they really start experimenting. So if you’re starting with a student of 17, you’re way behind,” says McCall.
Ideally, the coalition members would like to start talking to parents when their children are little. “It isn’t an issue when they’re small, and yet by the time they are 12, the voice in their head saying ‘This is not the right choice for me’ should be their own voice, saying ‘I know enough about this and I’m going to choose not to.’”
Community participation in CCSAP is invited and encouraged. “We’d like to see the coalition grow and expand to all of Bonner County, not just Sandpoint,” enthuses McCall.
For more information, contact Erika McCall at Erika.firstname.lastname@example.org or attend a CCSAP meeting. All meeting information is available on their website at www.7bdrugfree.org.