Robb Fulcher

High school confidential

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What the kids are taking, and what’s being done about it


A golden retriever will show up unexpectedly to sniff your car for contraband. You will be asked to take a drug test if your parents sign off on it. If you are discovered with drugs or alcohol, or if you decide to tell on yourself, you will be offered help from well-trained peer counselors, and a well-informed teacher, and can be steered to outside counselors as well.

Welcome to Mira Costa High School, regarded by members of the treatment community as a model of enlightened action when it comes to addressing drug and alcohol use among young people.

Substance abuse occurs across all ages, but experts in the education and treatment community believe that teens are in many ways the most vulnerable. They are less equipped than adults to make prudent decisions, while sections of their still-forming brains face a greater threat of long-term damage from some drugs. In addition, abuse problems that form early are said to be the hardest to break.

Old problem, new approaches

Observers say the nature of drug and alcohol abuse among young people has changed little over the last half-century. The popularity of individual drugs rises and falls – prescription drugs, ecstasy and possibly heroin are on the upswing these days – while alcohol remains the king of the prom, with marijuana in perennial second place.

“It’s similar now to what it has been since the ‘60s or ‘70s, although the substances have changed,” said Greg Allen, program director of the highly regarded Thelma McMillen Center for Chemical Dependency Treatment at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.

“About 35 percent of young people are drinking or smoking pot or taking something weekly. It gets higher around ages 17 or 18. Of course, college campuses are a big party scene, where there is no parental supervision,” he said.

“I’d say 90 percent of seniors have tried pot,” said substance abuse counselor Coleby Lombardo of Vin’Ash life coaching and the Thelma McMillen Center.

But if the nature of substance abuse remains the same, the methods of prevention and treatment have been evolving and improving.

In the hard sciences, researchers are ferreting out the precise connections between how substances make us feel good and how they can damage our brains and bodies, and are refining drugs that can be used to ease an addict’s withdrawal and recovery.

In the soft sciences, counselors are making increasing headway using cognitive therapy, which is designed to identify and change the dysfunctional thinking and behavior that can pervade an addict’s drugging or drinking. Counselors are involving entire families in the treatment of one member’s abuse, and educators at Mira Costa and at Redondo Union high schools are arming students with increasingly effective weapons against peer pressure to drink and use.

Evolving tools

On the hard science front, the drugs buprenorphine and naloxone, that go by trade names Subutext and Suboxone, are being used to ease withdrawal from addiction to opiates such as heroin and narcotic painkillers, by producing effects similar to those of the opiates, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The drugs are taken under close supervision by physicians, and they carry the possibility of serious side effects, and even overdose.

Stepping outside the laboratory, 12-step programs remain popular and highly regarded as long-term recovery methods, and one-on-one cognitive therapy is being praised for its results.

Cognitive therapy seeks to identify and change twisted thinking and behavior, and inappropriate emotional responses. Lombardo, 31, of Redondo Beach, uses cognitive therapy in his life-coaching approach to help clients modify self-destructive beliefs and behaviors as they navigate their way through life’s difficulties.

Lombardo, a former actor with numerous roles in TV and films including “Beverly Hills, 90210, “The Colbys” (a spinoff of “Dynasty”) and “Radio Flyer,” got sober himself 12 and-a-half years ago, at age 19.

“I began speaking to kids at Mira Costa, telling my story, and it graduated into ‘Hey, you should think about doing this professionally,’” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better gig.”

Despite economic woes that plague the schools and the treatment providers, there are more options for young people today than when Lombardo got sober.

“There are more resources for young people now, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “Having said that, there aren’t nearly enough. I think we as a community need to do all we can do.”

Caught on campus

One area high school student, a 16-year-old who likes to skate and go to parties, sees himself as a drug user, but not a kid with a problem, although he receives court-ordered counseling through the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence of the South Bay.

“It’s just fun. I don’t have a problem. I smoke weed every day,” he said with a laugh.

He was sent for counseling after he got caught smoking at school, and then got caught with a friend who was snorting the tranquilizer Xanax, after opening the capsule to pour out the powder. The 16-year-old said he was not snorting Xanax on that occasion, but he had done so before.

He said he likes his substance abuse counselor.

“We like talk about drugs, watch movies and stuff. Monica’s cool,” he said.

Looking up

In recent years young people, including some teens, have increasingly turned to substance-abuse recovery methods such as 12-step programs. But often people who develop problems at early ages don’t seek help until years later.

One 40-year-old South Bay woman said things are looking up for her after she began receiving treatment for her methamphetamine addiction at the National Council for Alcohol on Drug Dependence of the South Bay.

She grew up “in a good home” and was turned off by drug users. But when she was 33, she said, her husband began spiking her drinks with meth and then she started smoking it.

“I guess I liked it,” she said.

Her methamphetamine use steamrolled into a $100-a-day habit.

“We ended up robbing and stealing,” she said.

In 2006 her husband was sent to prison, and she went to jail for identity theft, and came out determined never to use again.

“I guess I thought I was ‘scared straight,’” she said. “I got back to work, I got my life in order.”

But then her husband got out, and she started on another long run.

“We were running amok, committing crimes – a lot of forgery and identity theft, living in hotels,” she said.

In July 2009 she and her husband were arrested in a Pico Rivera hotel room where they were holed up with her 9-year-old boy. She went to jail again, and lost custody of the child.

This time, when she got out, she sought help. In February the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services helped get her into a National Council outpatient program that includes eight weeks of parenting classes, 12 weeks of drug education, twice-a-week group sessions led by a counselor, life skills classes, and direction to attend meetings of a 12-step group.

She avoids her old haunts and the friends who practice her old ways, and she’s developing a new outlook.

“The 12-step program really taught me that I’m going to be an addict the rest of my life, but I don’t have to pick up. I learned the underlying reason people use drugs is they don’t want to feel their feelings. But to be around people who are really working hard to be sober, it makes me feel like I’m not so much alone,” she said.

“I learned it’s not my fault that I’m an addict, but I’m responsible for my recovery,” she said.

Drug addiction, she said, “is like a never ending cycle. It’s deadly. It’s depressing, but it’s hard to get out of it…It gets down to a day-to-day, hand to mouth thing. How am I going to pay for the next hotel night?”

Campus combat

Rocky Wilson, a math teacher and substance abuse intervention advisor at Mira Costa in Manhattan Beach, helps to oversee a multi-front effort that calls upon students, parents, teachers, administrators, community volunteers and police.

“It’s a team effort. I think that’s the key to all this,” he said.

At the head is the school district’s drug task force, with representatives from walks of life within and without the schools, who form “guidelines for each part of the community to address drug and alcohol abuse by students.”

Michael Ballue, board chairman of the multi-agency South Bay Coalition and executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of the South Bay, singled out Costa for praise of its drug testing program, its drug sniffing dog, and its well-trained peer counselors.

He praised the area’s other educators as well, saying that “Overall, the schools have gotten better” at prevention and intervention.

The Redondo Beach Unified School District, which contains the beach cities’ other high school, also has its prevention efforts overseen by an aggressive task force that utilizes the talents and experience of the treatment community, law enforcement, educators, civic leaders, students and parents.

Student testing

Mira Costa contracts with Lombardo to provide random drug testing, which 18 percent of parents have agreed to impose on their kids.

Wilson said the testing is not designed to treat the student as suspect, but to show that parents set a “clear limit” that their kid is expected to remain within.

In addition, a student who doesn’t want to use can utilize the imminent testing as a clear, understandable reason turn down drugs.

“It gives them an excuse if they’re facing peer pressure,” Wilson said.

Wilson advises all parents to impose the testing, saying that most don’t find out their kids are using “until a year after their involvement begins.”

And Wilson is concerned about the special vulnerability of the young to substance abuse problems.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is associated with the ability to make decisions, is not yet fully developed in high school aged kids, and so, Wilson said, some “self controls” must be imposed upon young people until they become “built in.”

“And studies show the longer you can delay a child’s involvement in drugs or alcohol, the less likely they are to have a lifetime issue,” he said.

Lombardo, 31, of Redondo Beach, said the drug testing program, which will soon be used by Redondo Union as well, is designed to be “non-punitive,” and voluntary on the part of the parents. The results are reported to the parents and never to the school. For that reason, the kids are not tested for recent alcohol use, because if they were found to be intoxicated on campus, a report to the school would be required.

After the student gives a urine sample, the parents receive an initial report from the drug testing lab, followed by a more refined report 24 to 48 hours later. Lombardo said false positives, such as poppy seeds from muffins showing up as PCP, are rare.

If a student refuses to provide a sample, that is reported to the parents.

Research has shown that decreased drug use leads to students’ greater academic fulfillment, less risky behavior and better relationships with parents, Lombardo said.

“And a lot of studies show that voluntary, non-punitive tests decrease drug use,” he said.

Like Wilson, Lombardo said the drug testing helps kids say no.

“They have a mechanism for anti-peer pressure. When someone asks ‘Hey, do you want to smoke a bowl,’ they can say no, man, I’m being tested,’” Lombardo said.

The Redondo Beach Unified School District board has begun discussing a possible contract with Lombardo to conduct an identical drug testing program at Redondo Union High School.

“The school district would not be getting the test results, I don’t think parents would want that,” said Frank DeSena, assistant superintendent of student services.

And he agreed the possibility of testing can help a student say no.

“If they feel there is pressure – and they will feel pressure – this gives them a reason to say hell man, I can’t get in trouble again, I’m going to be tested.”

Safe space

Parents at Costa and the other Manhattan schools are also encouraged to sign up for the Safe Space program, adding their names to a list of those who pledge in writing:

“I will not serve, nor allow youth under the age of 21 to consume, alcohol or drugs in my home or on my property. I wish to be informed by any parent who observes my child using, or under the influence of, alcohol or other drugs.”

Wilson said the list can be used by other parents to determine where their kids will be safe.

Some parents see alcohol drinking among teens as “not a big deal” or even an expected “rite of passage,” and tolerate the behavior.

“A lot of parents think, what’s the use, they’re going to go to college and do it anyway,” he added.

DeSena is looking into offering a Safe Space agreement for Redondo parents as well, possibly in conjunction with the upcoming fall registration.

“There is no one thing that is going to eliminate drugs and alcohol at the high school level. There have been some alcohol problems, probably forever, and drugs and alcohol to some extent for probably the last 40 years,” he said.

Pooch patrol

At Mira Costa the drug-sniffing dog shows up from time to time and prowls common areas such as the parking lots, but not the classrooms. About 75 percent of the time the pooch’s sensitive nose strikes on some contraband.

Under the school district’s “Impact” program, any student caught with drugs or alcohol on campus receives eight mandatory once-a-week sessions with a drug and alcohol counselor, and the parents are asked to see the counselor once as well. Educators also can refer students to Thelma McMillen for a free evaluation.

In Redondo a drug dog is not on the horizon.

“As of right now we will not have a drug sniffing canine at the Redondo Beach Unified School District. We have discussed it. It’s been discussed by me, the task force, the superintendent, and we’re not bringing it forward to the board as a discussion item,” DeSena said.

“I don’t think it would be something that is looked at favorably or approved,” he said. “There are pros and cons to having drug sniffing dogs.”

Pros would include some level of prevention: “If they know the lockers are going to be sniffed, they may be less likely to keep anything on campus.”

The cons include a possible perception of invasion of privacy.

“And maybe kids just wouldn’t keep things in their lockers,” DeSena said. “…The goal is not to remove things from campus and transfer them somewhere else, but to reduce use, not just at school.”

Puppet power

Students at Costa have formed the group PACE (People Attaining Complete Equality) which helps provide substance abuse education, and provides peer counseling for kids who are self-referred, or referred by their parents.

PACE invites outside speakers including former Costa baseball star Jon Wilhite, who survived a 2009 car crash that killed an Angels pitcher and two others.

Police said the car containing Wilhite was struck by a driver three times over the legal blood-alcohol level. The driver was awaiting trial. Wilhite suffered what is called an internal decapitation, and is continuing to recover.

PACE students also speak to junior high school students, to tell them what they can expect in high school, “and give them hints on how to navigate themselves through issues of drugs and alcohol,” Wilson said.

And PACE kids go to grade schools with an anti-smoking puppet show, featuring a big bad wolf who is a smoker and can’t huff and puff and blow anybody’s house down.

Hot and not

According to observers and surveys of the young people themselves, the easily accessible and socially acceptable substance alcohol remains by far the most popular among high school students, with marijuana a perennial second place.

The drugs that take up the rear wax and wane in their popularity. Lombardo, who speaks extensively to young people through Vin’Ash, Thelma McMillen, and in visits to schools, said he sees more heroin use these days.

“An ongoing problem in the South Bay, from El Segundo to the hill, is the resurgence of heroin use, and that is disturbing. It’s been growing over the last six years,” he said. “When you think of heroin you think of skid row…it hasn’t been seen as socially accepted, but today it’s a lot more accepted.”

The euphoria-inducing stimulant ecstasy, which has been linked to the death of a girl at the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Los Angeles Coliseum, dwindled in use in recent years, but appears to be mounting a comeback.

“About 1999 to 2002 there was a lot of education about how nerve endings can be burned and damaged in the brain, and the brain cannot recover from this damage. Now they don’t know about that, or they don’t care. They’re taking it. It ties in with the rave culture for older teens and young adults. They want to hallucinate, and to feel euphoria,” Allen said.

“There is a huge increase again in ecstasy use among young people. It was dwindling for a while, now it is back in the forefront,” Ballue said. “In the last six months we’ve had a rapid escalation in that.”

He said the perception of the risk of taking ecstasy appears to have declined, although the risk itself has not.

“They are finding significant ongoing psychological effects,” Ballue said.

The “blue Tuesday” bummer after-effect of ecstasy might presage more serious ongoing damage, according to researchers who find that the drug damages receptor sites for serotonin, a chemical produced by the brain that helps people feel good. If the receptor sites won’t bounce back, the ongoing depression can’t be treated with anti-depressant drugs.

The immediate dangers of ecstasy worry Ballue as well. The drug can increase the body’s core temperature, raising the danger of severe dehydration. In a cruel twist, over-hydration as a response can pose its own risks.

Lombardo recalled speaking at an area middle school where eight students in the eighth grade told him they had rolled, or taken ecstasy, before. Another middle school had been the site of ecstasy busts, he said. He shied from identifying the schools, for fear of unfairly singling them out.

Lombardo, Wilson and Ballue said drug problems don’t strike one area school and spare another. Ballue, whose role requires a broad view, says that if a community has an abuse problem, the community’s school will as well.

Wilson said Mira Costa is sometimes rumored to have a larger abuse problem than other schools, without hard evidence to back that up. He attributed the rumors to the aggressive anti-abuse strategies at Costa – because the school can be seen “doing something about” the problem, people might assume Costa is where the problem is worse.

Lombardo does see some differences in the tastes of students who use.

Kids at Costa are more inclined to use pharmaceuticals – drugs that are prescribed by physicians and then diverted to illegal use – where their counterparts at Redondo Union High School are more inclined toward ecstasy.

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, students are more eclectic.

“On the hill it’s a hybrid of ‘script’ and ecstasy,” Lombardo said.

Ballue, Allen and Wilson also noted a rise in prescription drug use.

“Methamphetamine used to be very popular, then it kind of morphed into prescription drugs,” Wilson said.

Ballue said kids are raiding the medicine chests of their parents and their friends’ parents, and swapping their own prescribed drugs if they have them. Opiate drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin are the most sought after, followed by speedy drugs such as Ritalin and tranquilizers such as Xanax and Valium.

“Younger folks are ‘pharming,’ dumping pills in a bowl and taking them that way, and that’s extremely dangerous,” Ballue said.

Kids, and using adults, often see prescription drugs as safer than their illegally manufactured counterparts, and feel safer taking, say, Vicodin than heroin.

“There is definitely a lot more control of dosage and purity. And that would work well if you used a very scientific approach, but the perception of greater safety leads to more reckless behavior – if I want to feel higher I’ll take more – and we’re seeing more emergency room [visits],” Ballue said.

“And with prescriptions, people tend to mix them, not knowing what the interactions might be,” he said. “Two plus two might not equal four, it might equal eight.”

Nationwide, emergency-room visits from the “non-medical use of prescription pain relievers” rose 111 percent between 2004 and 2008 among people of all ages, according to a study released this summer by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Emergency-room visits increased from 144,644 to 305,885.

Synthetic opiates were the most commonly cited drugs.

“We urgently need to take action,” said CDC director Thomas Frieden. “Emergency-department visits involving non-medical use of these prescription drugs are now as common as emergency-department visits for use of illicit drugs.”

More than 13,000 deaths involving “opioids” occur nationwide each year, the CDC said. ER

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2 Responses to High school confidential

  1. Clay Boggess July 29, 2010 at 4:47 am

    The 16 year old boy in your story obviously was not getting the message. “It’s just fun. I don’t have a problem. I smoke weed every day,” he said with a laugh…He said he likes his substance abuse counselor. “We like talk about drugs, watch movies and stuff. Monica’s cool,” he said.

  2. It's About Time July 30, 2010 at 7:57 am

    It’s about time Mira Costa H.S. got serious about addressing the drug and alcohol problem on campus. I remain somewhat skeptical though, as some of the punishments outlined in the article appear too lenient. Any kid caught with a quantity of drugs for sale should automatically be arrested & expelled from the MBUSD (let mommy and daddy pay to have him/her home schooled). Any kid found to be in possession of a quantity of drugs or liquor for personal use should be arrested (let him/her and their parents experience the pure joy of life at Inglewood Juvenile Court) and suspended for 10 days. MCHS drug counselors need to remind themselves that their job is to save kids from ruin, not necessarily to be their buddy or to appear “cool”. Speak the truth, show them examples and the kids will be respond in a positive way. The fact is that while dog searches and drug testing of MCHS students are good secondary measures to use to address the substance abuse problem, they will have little effect if Measure #1 is not achieved; Keeping Parents’ Feet to the Fire by Holding them Accountable for the Actions of Their Own Child! Achieving Measure #1 will take courage on the part of administrators, faculty & staff, as pressure (personnel complaints & threats of legal action) by a few parents (we all know who they are) will occur. Although this will be taxing on them personnally and professionally, educators must always keep in mind the end goal; the health & welfare our kids!

    In the end, the onus is on parents to control and safeguard their own children. Parents must lock up their own prescription drugs where their kids cannot gain access to them. Seems like a no brainer but this is where the majority of kids get their drugs; mom and dad’s medicine cabinet.

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