By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“There are no quick fixes, no silver bullets,” said Mike Squire-Graham from Neighborhood House, as he opened what was described as an “urgent community meeting” about teen alcohol and drug abuse.
The meeting Thursday was sparked by concerns in the Hiawatha Park/West Seattle High School area, but Squire-Graham stressed that these types of concerns are and should be addressed as a community-wide challenge, not as a problem for a particular school or park.
A strong turnout for the meeting in the WSHS library indicated many were up to that challenge – or at least, up for finding out more about it: We noted a rough count of more than 40 people – from parents, to Seattle Public Schools reps including the principals of WSHS and Madison Middle School, to Seattle Parks, business, and neighborhood-group reps.
Front and center as it began, and helping lead the discussion, was a mom with firsthand experience:
She identified herself as the mother of one of the teens involved in an incident over the summer, mentioned in the announcement of the meeting: On August 10th, four teens overdosed on DXM – the cough suppressant dextromethorphan – she said. One child got home, told a parent, and the parent said she got to three of the girls within an hour and took them to the emergency room; one left in an ambulance.
“I’m here more because I want people to be aware there are more drugs than what you hear about … I thought that wouldn’t happen to me … you’re seriously making a big mistake if you thought it wouldn’t happen to you.” Her daughter spent seven hours in the ER and wasn’t well for days, she said. “These kids can buy this at any local store – it’s not a guy with a trench coat. They’re abusing things we’ve never thought of. I’m concerned for everyone’s children, not just my own.”
What ensued at the meeting was a freewheeling conversation. One mom said she knows her child had tried things, and she is hearing now where teens go to use drugs, so she is wondering what she should do with that information, wanting to preserve her son’s trust in her.
Later, SPD Community Police Team Officer Jon Flores said every parent must make that decision whether to tell authorities or not. He also said they work with schools and have ways to share that information. “I’m going to tell you, I want to know everything – I would love to have that information – but I understand the dynamic you have.”
“If your kid knows about it, 200 or 300 others do too,” said WSHS principal Ruth Medsker. She later noted some ways in which the school pays close attention to student behavior, especially when returning from lunchtime – single point of entry, observing whether anyone “smells funny,” etc. She also talked about a program offered to help kids reduce stress and other factors that lead to “self-medicating” (explained later as using drugs to deal with depression, pain, etc.).
What’s the school policy if a student is found under the influence and/or in possession? Zero tolerance, replied Medsker. Suspensions result, with a shorter first-time duration if they get intervention. Whether they go to it is also being monitored. And there are incentives – their athletic participation might be affected. “We do have a number of students here who are dealing with alcoholism, (as young as) 15 years old.”
She said that it’s hard for parents to believe it could happen to their children. Getting them help is paramount.
Officer Flores reassured parents that sharing information with police is not going to bring an army of detectives to your home – nor even generate an official report; the information might just be shared between police informationally.
One woman said she had shared information with a principal and it was taken care of without it ever having been traced back to her child. She urged parents to communicate with their schools.
Back to the problem – including the summertime incident. That substance is a cough suppressant and its sales are not controlled, subsequent discussion revealed.
“How accessible is it?”
“Go into Bartell, Safeway .. it’s right there.” says another parent.
More concerns were voiced as contributing to the problem – lack of awareness, easy access.
Another parent said that she had heard that “easy access to a plethora of things” has led students to abuse a variety of substances, not just what you might expect, such as the cough medicine. Social media is enabling them to share information, and they use code names; she said she had gone so far as to take technology away from her kids. “There are conversations that our kids would never have face to face with their friends … that they are having via social media.”
Then, there are other new problems colliding with old temptations. What is a parent to do with the fact that marijuana is now legal? asked one mom.
Madison’s new principal Dr. Robert Gary, Jr., talked about that. Some kids, as a result of parental use, “haven’t learned at home that it’s not OK to do it,” and those are the hardest ones to work with, he said. He mentioned he has a seventh grader and “I’m scared to death” – because there’s peer pressure. But all you can do is “keep doing what you’re doing, educate your child.”
A WSHS staffer said she has seen great changes from times past when the school was reported to have a more pervasive drug problem: “I don’t see that culture as I have seen it in years past … and the statistics show the evidence of that to be true.” regarding use at school.
However: The park around neighboring Hiawatha Community Center is one place where drug exchanges are known to happen, said some parents; behind St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church next door, too, they said. One attendee mentioned a “well-dressed young man with a Hello Kitty backpack” that she had seen approached by young people in the park one at a time, and she was certain drug deals were being made.
A school security official said she patrols on bicycle. From further north, a woman who identified herself as a Hamilton Viewpoint Park neighbor said she would like to see police and school officials go there too.
Officer Flores said that the school has a change – but West Seattle overall has changes, such as transients’ presence, “issues we are actively dealing with … we believe some of them are involved, and … there have been several arrests made, we book them … I rely heavily on calls from the community.” He says there are a variety of factors. He stressed again that he was here to listen and get feedback, more than to speak.
Principal Medsker said much of the marijuana that is seen “is in medical marijuana vials.”
One dad said that his son and friends were taking the message from legalization that “it must be good for you.” In the end, he said, “we gotta find a way to reach the kids … to teach them that this isn’t good for you … it’s really hard right now.”
Another dad said he wanted to know what concern level he should have if his middle-school-age kids just wanted to head over to Hiawatha, hang out in the Safeway area.
The mom leading the meeting said overall, she thinks Hiawatha is a great place to hang out, particularly the community center. “But if you see something that isn’t right, say something.”
One mom asked if Safeway would ever employ a security person to walk the grounds. “There is someone at this point doing that,” replied a store rep.
Is video security watched? an attendee asked. Generally, they use it, said a Safeway rep. If you are looking to see if a specific incident was captured, be very specific about the time.
Officer Flores said that while Safeway is responsible for its own building, they have signed up the surrounding property for the trespass program – though some of the individual businesses need to get on board too. “Trespass” means if anyone is seen in the parking lot not being a customer or doing something specific, it can be reported to police. First time, they get a warning. Second time, if they are caught in a prohibited activity like loitering, “they can be arrested for criminal trespass.”
The sidewalk, however, is public property, he said, in response to a question.
Seattle Parks was asked about its trespass program – its regional managers were on hand. The rangers primarily work downtown, but there are also security people.
Robert Stowers: “Our trespass program is pretty similar” to the one mentioned by police, he said. Park security personnel do operate out of the Parks officers on West Marginal Way, so they are close by, they said, while also noting, “This is happening all over the city … Hamilton Viewpoint, Leschi Dell, taking drugs, drinking alcohol … One of the things we’ve been doing with these communities, at parent meetings like this, is, along with the Police Department, we walk the site and get our crews to trim some of the bushes, so police will have a clear sight line. “Ultimately they might find another place” but community involvement does matter. He also suggested that a formal request be made of the Parks Dept. so there could be something to do and they could also be connected with other communities working on similar issues. It was noted that a ranger has offered to do a walkaround at Hiawatha on her own time to look for any visibility problems.
A woman who identified herself as a school counselor said she often walks Hiawatha and there are lots of people there because of coaches, athletes … “There are adults out there who see what’s going on.”
Aside from location concerns:
Another mom said that she quizzes her child regarding where they’re going to be, who they’re going to be with: “As long as you hang out with good people, you’re going to be fine.”
One parent said she came to the meeting to look for information – local specifics – what should they really be looking for?
Most of the advice she received was more along the lines of what to look for in a teen’s behavior as a hint of trouble:
“Anything that changes, anything in their behavior,” replied one. “Grades, attendance,” said another. “If they come home and go straight to their room, didn’t even say hi,” said another.
Madison’s principal said, “If you have a well-organized child, and you start to see something change … that’s a definite sign, one telltale.”
The counselor recommended that parents role-play how to deal with other kids if for example inappropriate suggestions are made … “There’s alwyas going to be a new drug a new drink, a new something or an OLD something. … THink back to when you were 13 or 15, did you have those tools … parenting is a constant rehearsal so when kids find themselves in a situation, they have a dialogue in their head they know what to do.”
Don’t call the non-emergency number, Officer Flores and others reiterated – Call 911. “If you think something’s going on … call … they’ll figure it out. … Don’t be shy about doing it.”
There were some mentions about “homeless” young people hanging around the area, with inference that they might be involved in the undesirable activity. One woman subsequently made a point that homeless doesn’t mean bad – “transient” doesn’t mean “criminal.” Another reinforced that, saying she’s more worried about the kids who look just like everybody else.
And if you find out someone is dealing/using drugs, it was advised, take a hard line with your kid(s) regarding not being allowed to hang out with them.
A rep from MADD said that she was there to offer resources, as fighting underage drinking is a major mission for the group. Same with other substances: “Marijuana is legal, but not if you’re under 21.” She said there are various resources that could be offered – she mentioned the 25-min workshop Power of Parents. “There are tips and tools you can use to talk to your kids, not just about drugs and alcohol, but just to open up …” about myriad things.
The meeting concluded after an hour and a half with talk of another one to follow – though no date was set. Many lingered to talk, share experiences, discuss concerns, in small groups.