Leader Blues

Monday, April 30, 2007

TOP STORY >>Drinking, drug use a teenage problem

Leader staff writer

As alcohol and drug abuse is shown to have surged among north Pulaski County youth, government officials slated with handling such problems admit to a lack of programs to prevent them.

Early this month, the state created an Underage Drinking Prevention Task Force in response to the federal government’s requirement that each state have one, according to Jill Cox of the Department of Health and Human Services, a member of the taskforce.

As for prevention of alcohol abuse and other factors that contribute to youth violence, Cox said, “We (the task force) will make recommendations on the state and community level, but schools may or may not choose to do them. Schools get instruction from the Department of Education,” Cox said.

“In Arkansas, the average age of first alcohol use is 14,” Cox said. “The taskforce can tell (the schools) how to address the issue, but we’re a resource and cannot require schools to do anything. We give them the data but it’s up to the schools on how they want to use it,” she said.

Bobby Cole, director of health for the Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD), said that he was unaware of the Prevention Needs Assessment Student Survey conducted in 2005 by the DHHS that showed high numbers of children in north Pulaski County drink alcohol, use drugs and have acted violently.

The study reported that 21 percent of sixth graders have experimented with alcohol and the same number have already been suspended from school. Seventy percent of 12th graders in north Pulaski County said they already experimented with alcohol and 15 percent have been suspended from school. That same number have attacked other people in an attempt to harm them.

Cole said most of his duties involve making sure the 28 schools in PCSSD meet the physical education state guidelines. The state legislature recently reduced the required time that children must exercise each week and increased the amount of time children will take health education, Cole said.

“I think it’s wise to educate the students …but it reduces physical activity time,” Cole said. “It will allow freedom for the schools to create their own climates, that’s a good thing.”

But prevention of drug abuse and alcohol use among young people, considered causes of youth violence and other detrimental behaviors, are not yet fully on the radar of local officials.

When asked what schools do with the information that shows youth violence and alcohol and drug abuse are rampant, DHHS representative Hayes Miller said that “for a lot of the school districts, it’s not necessary.” Miller oversaw the study that found that north Pulaski County students are drinking at rates often well beyond children in other parts of Arkansas. In 2005, PCCSD participated in the study but the person who oversaw the study is no longer there, he said.

“The study allows the school to get an idea of what’s going on in the community,” he said. “We have to look at risk factors. It’s important to look at drop out rates. Pro social activities, poverty rates, there are a variety of behaviors considered.” He said the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that children be identified for risk factors, but a plan of action is the school’s choice once those problems are identified.

“A school could then identify law enforcement, youth services, private citizens, the mayor, social services, form a coalition and identify those problems and look at what prevention programs are available and what social services gaps exist for these underserved populations,” Miller said.

The Jacksonville Health Improvement Coalition is one such group that has formed to promote health awareness. The group organizes health education classes, health fairs and other educational tools intended to reverse the high death rates in the state caused by mostly preventable disease.

“There aren’t necessarily programs to target the drug use problems. The local coalitions tend to focus more on diabetes, West Nile virus, obesity and cancer. What tends to be missing is focus on drug-related issues,” Miller said.

In terms of solving the addiction problems of youth, Miller said that communities will have to work together to solve the problem. “One organization won’t have all the resources needed,” he said.