Students Offer An Inside View Of Local Substance Abuse

Newtown Bee By Larissa Lytwyn

A panel of six Newtown High School students ranging from former substance abusers to students who have always chosen to remain drug and alcohol free spoke frankly about the community’s ongoing struggle with substance abuse.

Parent Connection, a local grassroots organization dedicated to substance abuse prevention and education, hosted the discussion, which was moderated by John Hamilton of LMG, Inc, a Fairfield County-based substance abuse treatment program.

“According to the latest statistics from the US Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA], New England has the highest rates of substance abuse among all regions in the United States,” noted Mr. Hamilton. “Connecticut is New England’s second highest ranked state for substance abuse.”

Interstate highways to New York City and Boston, the DEA website notes, marks Connecticut as “an important transit and destination for drugs.”

The DEA notes that heroin has now equaled crack cocaine “as the greatest drug threat in Connecticut.”

Each student, using first names only, introduced themselves to the 100-plus member audience, including First Selectman Herb Rosenthal, Board of Education Chair Elaine McClure, Board of Education member Paul Mangiafico and Newtown Congregational Church minister Steve Gordon.

Erin, a senior who says she has never used drugs or alcohol “for personal reasons,” volunteers at Newtown Youth Services and is an alumnus of St Rose of Lima School

Becky, an honors student who says she has volunteered in a variety community service groups, has been involved with alcohol or drugs for more than a year after experimentation with alcohol and drugs, including cocaine.

Greg, a sophomore and high-honors student, has never used drugs or alcohol. He credited his strong connection to family and a “solid” group of friends for helping him avoid the temptations of substance abuse.

Emily, an honors student and member of the Newtown High School swim team, said she had used alcohol, but not for more than a year.

Alex, an athlete and student government leader, admitted to drinking alcohol, but again not in the last year.

Alex, a sophomore, began abusing drugs and alcohol as a student at Newtown Middle School. He has remained clean for nearly a year and is intensely dedicated to remaining substance abuse free.

The panel answered questions audience members had anonymously written on pieces of paper and passed forward to Mr Hamilton.

Questions included ascertaining how widespread drug abuse was at Newtown High School and how parents could help their children stay clean.

“I would say about 80 percent of [NHS] students have used, will use, or still use marijuana,” said Becky.

Sophomore Alex concurred, “Marijuana is everywhere,” noting that after being “involved in it for a long time” he can see firsthand how it is a large problem at the school.

A student’s choice of friends was cited as an important factor in determining whether, or how much, he or she would become involved in the drug scene.

Alex admitted that the “best friend” he had been “stoned with every day after school [last spring]” had barely said “20 words to him” since he returned to school last fall.

While acknowledging that substance abusers seemed to hang out in groups, the students made clear that these groups were represented in a cross-section of high school stereotypes, from the “jocks” and “preps” to “Goths” and “skaters.”

Goths are students who tend to wear dark colors, sport piercings and dyed hair, and pursue “alternative,” out-of-the-mainstream interests.

Skaters, dubbed for their frequent fondness of skateboarding, tend to express an appreciation for punk-ska and reggae music, often embodying the hippies-of-old message in the music with a peaceful, live-and-let-live attitude.

Often, the students concurred, false assumptions are made about certain groups, especially Goths and skaters.

Alex was quick to intone that just because he wears black does not mean he is involved in questionable behavior.

“I wear black because, you know, I just look so good in black!” he declared playfully, drawing laughter from the audience.

Several panel members said they knew high achieving students in advanced placement (AP) honors-level classes who frequently drank and abused marijuana and other drugs.

“There is a lot of pressure to succeed academically or at sports,” said Emily.

Greg said that he had been at parties where alcohol had been available.

Erin said she had never been to such a party.

“When my friends and I get together there is always a lot of supervision,” she said. “There is always a parent around.”

Emily and both Alexes said they now had a “solid” group of friends who did not do drugs or alcohol.

Greg encouraged parents to know who their children’s friends were.

“My family has always said to me, ‘Show me who your friends are and I will show you who you are,'” he said.

Alex said that it was important to be with friends who were committed to being “straight-edge,” or clean.

The straight edge movement, rooted in the early 1980s, is largely defined by living a drug and alcohol free lifestyle.

Many straight-edge teens and young adults are former substance abusers dedicated to staying clean.

The panel encouraged parents to be honest with their children about their own substance use or abuse. It was also important, they said, to monitor what their children were doing at all times.

All of the panel members described their families warmly; Alex said his mother was “such a strong, decent woman” while Emily said she admired her family’s strength and positive influence.

Mr Hamilton said he was “touched” by the panel’s warm regards for their families.

“They were so articulate and well-spoken,” said Dorrie Carolan, Parent Connection co-founder. “The evaluations [distributed to parents following the meeting] raved about the kids.”

One parent lauded the panel for their honesty and “courage” to come forward on behalf of the community.

The comment spurred a standing ovation.

“The audience was very supportive of the students,” said Ms Carolan. “I think this [event] went great!”

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