‘No quick fixes’ for teen substance abuse, but talking is a start

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.

13 Replies to "'No quick fixes' for teen substance abuse, but talking is a start"

  • Hilari October 15, 2013 (8:59 pm)

    This is so great that parents from WSHS are working together to solve this pervasive problem. I would love to see the same momentum from Sealth parents, or better yet — I would love to see the peninsula come together to combat what is a problem for all of our kids.

  • Peace October 15, 2013 (11:56 pm)

    This discussion is a wonderful thing. It would be great to have forums like these regularly. May it be monthly or weekly. A great support system for families! I do have one thing I’m wondering…what are the reasons behind allowing the high school students to leave campus for lunch? Does the school have a hot lunch program? How do you keep track of the students? Is it an honor system to come back? I am curious to hear the rationale behind this procedure. In other states, high school students aren’t allowed to leave campus and the campus is secured, just as elementary and middle schools are.

    • WSB October 16, 2013 (12:11 am)

      Peace, good question – and it led me to an eye-opener: I (parent of a current high-school student, fwiw) for some reason was under the impression that most high schools around the U.S. had open campuses. Not so, says this research paper – http://www.stanford.edu/~shirlee/Lichtman_OpenCampus.pdf – which quotes a 2006 count of 75 percent in the U.S. with CLOSED-campus policies. Interesting! – Tracy

  • JanS October 16, 2013 (1:19 am)

    I have no idea how the lunch room situation is at WSHS since the remodel, but before that the lunchroom wasn’t big enough for all of the students, so it was off campus for them. The students hit JITB, Safeway, Met Market, and there is usually trash about the neighborhood afterwards. In the past we have had students kinda hide in the carport behind our apartment bldg. It’s kind of hidden. Haven’t noticed much yet this year, but it’s early. I’m on 42nd between Admiral and Lander. When they’re cutting class they go down the alley often. There once was a time when we have discovered students drinking back there as early as 9 and 10 am, with cheap stuff they have lifted from Safeway (before the remodel) It was quite a problem for a while. I have discovered them under our “no trespassing” sign smoking pot occasionally. Usually, very polite, and they leave as soon as you tell them to, only to move down the alley to another parking lot behind another building.

    I, too, wondered why there is an open campus. I doubt there’s much money for decent food in the lunchroom, even if they had to stagger the times for students, so all could go.

  • kas October 16, 2013 (8:07 am)

    If I remember correctly, this meeting took place last Thursday, the same night as Chief Sealth’s open house. It’s unfortunate that two very important events regarding our youth conflicted with eachother. Thanks for your reporting the content of the meeting WSB, for those of us who could not attend! :-)

    • WSB October 16, 2013 (8:14 am)

      It did. A very busy night for scheduled events – and then there was breaking news, too; I was a block away from WSHS when I saw the Seattle Fire battalion chief heading south on California – a sign something major was happening somewhere – which turned out to be the stabbings near Westwood Village, so on the way in to this meeting I was dispatching someone to go find out what was going on there. (Glad to have backup so I could stay to cover this meeting.)

  • datamuse October 16, 2013 (1:33 pm)

    The high school I went to had open campus for lunch, and yeah, it was the honor system. Frankly, if a kid’s determined to skip out I don’t see how open lunch would make a difference, unless you actually lock the doors when school is in session.
    Amusingly, there was a line painted across the rear driveway denoting where the campus boundary lay, and all the smokers would hang out *just* on the other side of it…

  • Anonymous October 17, 2013 (9:07 am)

    So we can just call Jon Flores and give him information we know? Even if it’s something that they are already aware of? Sadly I’ve had a friend take a terrible turn down the path of hard drugs and I know the building the “dealer” lives in and it’s scary how close it is to a ws school. Is Jon Flores a person I could call and inform him about it (though I’m pretty sure they are already aware of it).

    • WSB October 17, 2013 (9:17 am)

      Anon – I am sorry to hear about your friend. If there is a chronic community problem, the Community Police Team officers are good people to consult for starters – their phone numbers are on the SPD website (I don’t have the link handy; google Southwest Community Police Team, or if those words are “blue” in the story, which I don’t have in front of me either, just the comment box, click on the phrase and it should go to that page) … good luck … TR

  • Anonymous October 18, 2013 (6:14 am)

    Had another incident at WSH yesterday, would love to know what happened. Apparently drug related and some kids were suspended. Sounds like a big issue over there.

  • anonyme October 18, 2013 (7:19 am)

    I may give Officer Flores a call. Dealers are now a regular fixture at the entrance of Roxhill Park, and Sealth & Denny students are there getting high all day long. One tried to sell me drugs yesterday as I crossed the street after lunch; I’m 63 years old. I think these schools either need to close their campuses at lunchtime, or send out “scouts” to these problem areas.

    • WSB October 18, 2013 (7:51 am)

      Anonyme – Officer Jon Kiehn is CPT for that area – here’s the map with areas & phone numbers, up to date as far as I know (as it notes, Officer McDaniel is specific to the SHA areas, which I believe includes the individual buildings such as Westwood Heights as well as High Point in general):

  • Anonymous October 18, 2013 (8:33 am)

    Thanks Tracy, I’ll probably call Officer Flores about it later. I’m guessing he’s probably aware of the house, and probably knows my friend too.

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