Substance abuse remains a problem among Fairmont teens, but it’s not only here

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Photo: Illustration by Lindsay Breslin

The famous red Solo cup: the holy grail of the underage party scene — and often filled with what’s not supposed to be there.

“I was gonna go to class, before I got high.”

Turn on the radio and that’s what you might hear. Afroman, a hip hop/R&B artist, grew to popularity on the heels of drug euphemisms. His single Because I Got High alludes to his copious use of drugs. The song peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, the American music industry standard record chart for singles, and was in the top 10 in 15 other countries.

But should drugs, alcohol and parties be put on such a positive pedestal?

Drugs and alcohol are ingrained into American society as a form of “cool” entertainment, something to do because everyone else is supposedly doing it, and they’re often considered the pièce de résistance of underage parties. These parties typically pop up around special events sponsored by the school.

“We see a lot of parties around graduation, Homecoming and Prom,” said James O’Dell who retired as Kettering’s chief of police in April after more than 30 years with the department.

These parties attract a lot of students, and many participate in using illegal substances.

“This year, I think every single party I’ve gone to drugs and alcohol have been present,” Fairmont sophomore Katie Breslin said.

Molly is a colloquial name for MDMA, a psychoactive drug similar to ecstasy.

Officer Carla Sacher, the Student Resource Officer from the Kettering Police Department, says student drug and alcohol consumption is high.

“There’s a lot of alcohol and marijuana misuse at underage parties,” Sacher said. “Alcohol and marijuana have always been an issue for kids as they grow up and experiment. But  it’s starting earlier than it did before, in middle school.”

While Fairmont High School Principal Dan VonHandorf isn’t happy about the situation, he’s not one to stick his head in the sand.

“It would be naive for any high school to say they don’t have a drug or alcohol problem. We have a drug and alcohol problem as a society,” he said. “I don’t think you could find any high school administrator who would say they don’t have a drug and alcohol problem at their school. If they are saying that, then they’re naive and not connected to reality.”

According to the Dayton Area Drug Survey, a questionnaire that students from 15 Miami Valley area schools complete anonymously every other year, student drug and alcohol usage has decreased since 2012 but is still prevalent.

According to DADS, of the 1,833 seniors polled in 2014:

~ 62 percent reported drinking at least once in their lives;

~ 44.8 percent reported drinking to the point of drunkenness;

~ 38.7 percent reported drinking to the point of drunkenness at least 10 times; and

~ 18.9 percent reported binge drinking (consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in a row).

According to the same survey:

~ 41.4 percent of seniors reported having used marijuana at least once in their lives, and

~ 6.9 percent of seniors reported “daily” use of marijuana (20 times in the 30 days prior to the survey).

The accessibility of drugs and alcohol contribute greatly to this omnipresence of substance use. “I would say drugs and alcohol are easily accessible to minors,” Sacher said. “If they want it, they know where to get it.”

Fairmont senior Mercedes Franklin confirms Sacher’s suspicions. “I know of people who know where you could get almost any kind of drug if they really wanted to,” she said. “It’s super easy; everyone knows someone.”

Senior Jake Florentine agrees.

“You can kind of tell who knows people who would sell you drugs,” Florentine said. “It’s kind of present in all circles.”

No stereotypes for alcohol and drug users

Indeed, students interviewed say there’s no criteria for what types of students participate in these activities. They say all factions of the student body are at least trying drugs or alcohol, whether they’re honors students and athletes or teens who show little interest in academics or extracurriculars.

You see all these people who are smart, but they party on the weekends. Then they come to school and they get stuff done.”

— Junior Adam Duffy

Franklin concurs and notes that despite the prevalence of drug use and alcohol consumption, it doesn’t necessarily translate into academic problems.

“I think the popular kids and the academic kids do it more,” Franklin said. “I don’t think anyone does anything very hard, and I think it’s mostly in moderation.”

Franklin says she knows people who use drugs or alcohol. “Almost all of them get As, Bs and Cs,” she said. “They’ve been smoking and drinking since freshman year, and they’ve been getting good grades. Their grades haven’t gotten any worse.”

Junior Adam Duffy said he also sees high-achieving students who use drugs or alcohol.

“You see all these people who are smart, but they party on the weekends,” he said. “Then they come to school and they get stuff done.”

But VonHandorf said he thinks some teens underestimate the impact these substances actually have on their minds and bodies. “There are people who use drugs and alcohol who are able to function,” the principal said. “But I would argue they aren’t able to function at as a high a level as they could if they were not. It absolutely affects your body, and it absolutely affects your mind.”

I’d like to believe it’s better here than in other places, but it’s really hard to put your finger on how your school is doing compared to others.”

— FHS Principal Dan VonHandorf

O’Dell said he just doesn’t comprehend why teens would want to take chances with their health.

“I have trouble understanding why someone would put something like that into their body,” the longtime police chief said. “If there was a sandwich on the floor and you were real hungry, but I stepped on it, you’re not going to eat it. Why would you put something into your body that’s really not healthy?”

 

O’Dell, the longtime Kettering police chief, also suggested that some parents’ lack of concern about alcohol and pot can contribute to their teens’ attitudes.

“There is a relationship between parents and parenting and what young people will do,” O’Dell said. “People will say, ‘Oh, what’s a beer [going to] hurt my kid?’ or ‘Marijuana is going to be legalized or decriminalized anyway.’”

Fairmont vs. other high schools

During the school day, drugs and alcohol are a frequent topic of teenage chit chat at Fairmont.

“People talk about doing drugs and alcohol at least once a day,” junior Jamie Cunningham said. “They talk about their weekend of drinking or smoking with friends.”

However, abuse of alcohol and drugs is not limited to Fairmont High School, and although statistics are hard to come by, there seems to be a normal distribution of usage among all area high schools.

“I’d like to believe it’s better here than in other places, but it’s really hard to put your finger on how your school is doing compared to others,” VonHandorf said. “You can look at some indicators, but there’s no clear data.”

Former Police Chief O’Dell agreed.

“I believe in Kettering, our tolerance to drug and alcohol use is very low,” he said. “But I’m not saying that we don’t have a drug problem or an alcohol problem, because we do.”

Officer Sacher acknowledged the difficulty of knowing how Fairmont’s problems compare to those at other schools. “I’m sure it happens more than we know here,” she said “Peer pressure and family life often create usage.”

Last November, Fairmont scheduled a rare, all-school convocation at Trent Arena to address the use of alcohol and drugs by teens. Chris Herren, a former professional basketball player with a history of drug abuse, spoke to students about his struggles and encouraged them to abstain.

“A parent and student saw him speak the summer before he came here, and the student said it was just an inspirational, life-changing event for him,” VonHandorf said. “His mom contacted us after that and asked if there was a possibility he could come here because her kid is just like a lot of the other kids at Fairmont.”

The principal said he saw Herren’s presentation as consistent with the overall mission of the district. “Our job is to try to educate kids to make good decisions so they’re living a healthy life,” he said. “We do have kids here who have drug problems and alcohol problems.”

People do dumb things and young people make mistakes. Hopefully, there aren’t tragic consequences, but we really need to try to use the model of education and enforcement.”

— James O'Dell, longtime Kettering police chief

While many students at Fairmont agree Herren’s speech was inspirational, some doubt its effectiveness in truly changing students’ habits.

“It might make someone cry a little, but on the weekend, they’re going to go back and do whatever they were before,” Duffy said.

O’Dell: Schools can’t do it all alone

While the Herren convocation was a bit out-of-the-ordinary, Fairmont administrators and staff routinely try to recognize and address problems of drug and alcohol abuse among students. But VonHandorf acknowledges that administrators are stretched pretty thin with all the demands they face in the 21st century.

“There are literally over a hundred responsibilities that have been put on schools that weren’t there in the early 1900s,” VonHandorf said. “I think our society keeps growing the roles of schools from what it used to be.”

O’Dell says making any progress on the problem of underage drug and alcohol use will take more than just the cooperation of the schools.

“I think it’s an issue for the community that includes government, the police, the schools, the parents,” O’Dell said. “I think there needs to be a partnership, there needs to be communications, there needs to be a clear direction as to how we’re going to go. People do dumb things and young people make mistakes. Hopefully, there aren’t tragic consequences, but we really need to try to use the model of education and enforcement.”

Parental influence is arguably the most important factor in the decisions young adults choose to make.

“As a dad, I believe it’s my job to educate my kids about drugs and alcohol and help them make good choices,” VonHandorf said. “It’s absolutely 100 percent my responsibility. But as a school administrator trying to help kids, I believe some of that falls on the schools to try to help kids grow and be healthy and make good decisions. ”

Life outside of school, however, can affect young minds even more, and parents are often oblivious to what their children are up to on the weekends.

“It’s hard to be a parent today and recognize those problems, and then to deal with it on top of that,” said Officer Sacher. “I think sometimes parents just aren’t aware enough themselves.”

O’Dell said parents have a responsibility to pay attention and deal appropriately with the challenges their teens can present.

“When my sons or daughter did things I wasn’t proud of, I learned and then I said, ‘I’ve got to accept some responsibility for this. I’ve got to hold them accountable. I’m not their friend, I’m their dad.’”

O’Dell knows first-hand that understanding and dealing with teen behavior isn’t always easy.

“There is no manual for this,” he said. “Sometimes parents become parents without knowing how to deal with this. They have to sort of wing it.”

But it’s not only parents who have to deal with this issue. Students are making these choices, and in the end it is their own decision on whether or not they should take action.

“Ultimately, there really is no substitute for good judgment and common sense,” O’Dell said. “I think our internal compass tells us that this isn’t right, and they know whether it’s a mistake of the mind or the mistake of a heart.”