Good kids, bad choices: Schools report on drug use, getting kids ‘back on that straight path’

When he started his teaching career, Shane Killinger didn’t picture himself high-fiving students who were celebrating 90 days of being clean from heroin.

But that’s the reality for the Brown County High School principal and at other schools across Indiana.

“We celebrate with those kids because we’re very proud — not proud of where they’ve been, but proud that they’ve straightened their lives back up,” Killinger said.

“At the end of the day, we know that there are — and we hate to admit this — but yes, we know there are students who are doing drugs and have issues.

“You just do everything you can to help them, or if you have to step in and have a consequence, then you have to do that as well.”

On April 20, the Indiana Youth Institute and the Brown County Community Network hosted a Youth Worker Cafe at Brown County High School to address heroin and other drug use in the county, and to share statistics.

Almost 50 percent of American high school students have abused a drug of some kind, said Terry West, Brown County Community Corrections officer.

Nationwide, more than 60 percent of teens reported that drugs of some kind are kept, sold and used at their school. Roughly 3 out of every 100 students have used heroin, he said.

Karen Little, with Desert Rose Recovery and Great Life Recovery Group, and West also spoke about the effects that heroin and other drugs, like marijuana, have on children; and they gave information on detox and treatment options.

Using drugs has an especially negative effect on adolescents because brains are not fully developed until a person is in their early 20s, Little said.

“If the brain isn’t fully developed, then you add drugs and alcohol, they’re not going to have that system of decision-making to tell them, ‘If marijuana is OK, if cigarettes make me feel good, marijuana makes me feel good, why don’t I just try heroin?’

“See why we’re seeing a problem?” Little said.

Truths and consequences

Nashville Police Assistant Chief Tim True said town police respond to reports of drugs on the Nashville schools campus a couple of times a month.

“Are we getting called there every day because of it? No,” he said.

Nine times out of 10, police are called because students have marijuana or prescription drugs on them.

“I can’t remember the last time I got heroin or meth out of the schools,” he said.

Brown County Junior High School had five drug or alcohol cases reported this school year, along with five tobacco cases that resulted in either expulsion or suspension.

“The biggest thing we run into here at the junior high level is mostly marijuana, which would be, I think, true probably for most junior high-aged kids nationwide, because that’s kind of a gateway drug,” Principal Brian Garman said.

Garman said the school has not had any instances of students actually using drugs in the building, but students have been caught with alcohol or drugs in their possession.

“When kids are together socially, certain kids can really influence a group of kids. If there’s some real popular people, and that’s kind of the culture they’re involved with, then that can spread pretty rapidly to other kids,” he said.

“I think we’re all fooling ourselves if we don’t think that kids are experimenting probably at younger ages.”

Garman said that since junior high-aged kids don’t have access to vehicles or the financial resources to purchase drugs, the drugs or alcohol may be coming from older friends, other adults or family members.

“I certainly don’t think we should be blind to it in our community, because in all communities, it’s a problem. I think the accessibility to it, it’s there,” he said.

Whenever the junior high school receives a tip about a student possessing drugs or alcohol, a search is conducted. If drugs or alcohol are found, that student could then be suspended for 10 days or expelled.

If a student is suspected of being under the influence at the high school or junior high, the school nurse will check that student.

“I typically call a parent and alert them that we’re suspicious. But if a student doesn’t admit that (use), we don’t have a mandatory, required (policy) where we can force them to drug test or anything like that,” Garman said.

If alcohol use is suspected, the police can be contacted and can give the student a breath test, he said.

The high school has had two cases involving alcohol and three cases involving drugs this school year. The school has conducted five locker and car searches this year.

“High school kids are smart, and they also have access to be able to do it outside of school,” Killinger said.

“It’s the natural progression, where junior high kids may never (use drugs) because they may be home and somebody is there all the time.”

If drugs are found in a high school student’s possession, the student is automatically suspended for 10 days. The student also is arrested and would be facing the possibility of expulsion, Killinger said.

However, those students aren’t always expelled. They are usually brought back to school under a “waiver to expulsion,” which sets out strict guidelines the student must follow or have that waiver revoked.

“The ones who are in trouble, they don’t come to school a lot. So what are we going to do? Put them out of school because they don’t come to school? It doesn’t make any sense,” said Al Kosinski, director of student services for the district. “It doesn’t happen too often where it’s revoked. They’re kind of scared straight, like being on probation with school.”

“At the end of the day, our theory is all of our kids are good kids; they’re just making bad choices and we want them to get back on that straight path and have success and graduate and be successful,” Killinger said.

The No. 1 way administrators find out about drug, alcohol and tobacco in schools is from fellow students.

“We got a tip that there was a student sitting in class chewing tobacco. It was anonymous,” Killinger said. “The kids are the ones that see it. They’re not going to do it around adults and staff.”

Last fall, the school district started a new program that allows students, parents and community members to report bullying, harassment, drug use or other safety issues to Brown County Schools administrators — anonymously if they wish — through SafeSchools Alert. It allows reporting through phone, text, email or a website.

The high school also randomly drug-tests all students who participate in athletics, any extracurricular activity or drive to school. But a positive drug test does not result in students being suspended from school, Killinger said.

“If a student tests positive for drugs, I can’t suspend them. I can suspend them from an extra-curricular activity,” Killinger said. “It’s supposed to be more letting the parent know that, ‘Hey, your child has tested positive for these drugs.’”

Helping students

Shannon Brunton works with students as a graduation and career coach in the high school. Kosinski said Brunton is “without question” finding that some students at risk of dropping out are struggling with drug issues.

“She gets a lot of confidential revelation from the students who say, ‘Yeah, I’m into this. I am struggling with this,’ whatever it might be. It could be marijuana; it could be something harder, like prescription drugs or heroin,” Kosinski said.

There are plans to increase the number of hours Brunton works next school year so that she can see more students, he said.

If Brunton believes a student has an issue with drugs, she will contact the student’s parents. But if it is discovered that the parents are using drugs with the student, Brunton will contact the Department of Child Services and make a report, Killinger said.

Killinger said he has seen instances of students using drugs with their parents. “Not only that, but we have had situations in the past where the parents are dealers and they are the ones that are having the kids sell,” he said.

The school district is in the process of applying for a comprehensive planning grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. that would give the district almost $200,000 to spend over three years to expand counseling services. This would mean putting counselors like Brunton in all of the school buildings who would identify and work with at-risk students, Kosinski said.

The district is also working to get a $10,000 grant from a telecommunications company that would pay for a curriculum at the high school focusing on anti-bullying, drug abuse prevention, suicide prevention and making good choices, Kosinski said. District leaders would like to begin teaching that curriculum in the third grade.

The grant also would cover training for all counselors in the district.

Currently, the school district allows teachers to complete an online form for a student who may be distressed. That process alerts administrators.

Caseworkers from mental health provider Centerstone also have been working in all buildings. They are paid entirely through Centerstone and services are billed through insurance or other contracted providers, said Amanda Kinnaird with Centerstone.

True said he speaks with local children in the intermediate school and YMCA summer classes as young as 10 about the dangers of drug use, including heroin. But recently he has had to change his tactics.

“It used to be, ‘Drugs are bad; don’t use drugs.’ My push now is, ‘Drugs will kill you. You will die,’” he said.

“(I say) ‘If you have the best friend in the whole world, if they decide to do this, that’s their decision. You don’t have to.

“You need to understand that this is not marijuana. This is not alcohol. This is not this other stuff. This is the worst of the worst of the worst. One time and it can kill you.’”

Nationwide statistics

  • Almost 50 percent of high school students have abused a drug of some kind.
  • 43 percent of high school students have used marijuana. By eighth grade, 15 percent admit to using marijuana.
  • More than 60 percent of teens reported that drugs of some kind are kept, sold and used at their school.
  • Roughly 3 out of every 100 students have used heroin.
  • Heroin use has increased by 80 percent among teenagers. Deaths and overdoses in users age 15 and older have increased by 38 percent.
  • 75 percent of high school-aged kids would try drugs if they were to see their friends using them.

SOURCE: Brown County Community Corrections Officer Terry West from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, American Society of Addiction Medicine and “Dreamland” by Sam Quinones

Author photo
Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.