FREQUENT AND sometimes fatal drug overdoses have been in the news recently, and the relative youth of many who have succumbed prompted The Times Leader to reach out to education and juvenile court officials about the state of drug use among students.
Those professionals cited ongoing preventive and counseling programs but said many young people face instability at home. They also noted that vaping is perceived as harmless, but it can be a “gateway” to harder drugs.
Martins Ferry Police Chief John McFarland has headed the drug division of the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office Special Crimes Unit and is heavily involved in the Belmont County Staying Clean Club, which focuses on prevention and outreach in the schools.
He said the problem is extensive, but so are the available assistance programs.
“In my opinion, Belmont County probably offers more education, service, opportunities at trying to get these kids to understand the importance of being drug-free … than any other county in the United States. We, as a group, go above and beyond.”
He commended Juvenile and Probate Judge Al Davies and his staff as the “backbone” of the outreach program, bringing in speakers and directing programs to high school and middle school students and stressing the consequences of using illegal drugs.
However, he said many young people are lacking valuable sources of stability in their family lives.
“The world’s different now. You’ve got so many broken families now – kids that don’t have a mom, don’t have a dad, being raised by their grandparents,” McFarland said. “It’s tough, and sad to see the way things are.”
McFarland said the drug-free club can be effective, but organizers are always looking for more participation.
“We have received positive feedback from kids over the years,” he said. “There’s certain school districts where our numbers are so low. At some schools, they just don’t want to participate in the program.
“It’s frustrating. I’ve got teachers who come to me and say there’s kids who come to school as low as the elementary building that smell of marijuana. It’s not that kid’s fault, it’s their home life and parents who think it’s OK to smoke weed in front of their kids.”
McFarland said schools in St. Clairsville and Martins Ferry have high numbers of participating students, as does Bellaire Middle School, with very high participation among seventh- and eighth-graders.
“It’s just trying to get it stamped in these kids’ heads how important it is not to do drugs. We don’t win them all. We’ve had kids that failed, and we’ve had kids that test dirty every time we went until the last time we were at the school in the spring, and that little girl broke down in tears crying and happy that she had passed the drug test. These kids go through struggles and get involved with the wrong people and get caught up with bad people.”
McFarland reflected on the scope of the problem.
“These kids are doing bad things. This fentanyl’s pouring into this country non-stop. It’s got to be stopped.”
Belmont County Probation Officer David Carter said he is seeing more drug-related cases among youth.
“We test 1,600-1,700 kids for school Staying Clean this year, and we’ve had three to four positives total. The vast majority of kids are not testing positive for anything, but the kids who are experimenting and using drugs, there’s the risk and concern that they’re going to move on to harder and harder drugs.”
Shadyside High School Principal John Poilek said there has been a trend of increased absences this year.
“I don’t know if there’s any correlation between drug use and increased absences, but that definitely exists,” he said. “Probably the most common drug we have had experience with this year was marijuana.”
He said the district offers an intervention program through student services.
“We have support groups for students who want to try to quit vaping or using drugs,” he said. “We’ve had some really good success. We’ve had some kids wean off of it and get off of vapes through this program. … We haven’t had any purposeful dropouts from school because drugs or vaping or anything to that effect, but like I said it’s rampant here and I’m sure that is everywhere else.”
If drug use is a spectrum from a puff of marijuana or a drink of alcohol on one end to a fatal overdose on the other, then most officials agree vaping is an early step. Davies said vaping offenses far outweigh “harder” drugs in his court.
“It’s not the equivalent of the adults where meth use and fentanyl use is out of control,” Davies said, noting that every year the Staying Clean program grows. “It is having an effect of keeping kids off of drugs.”
He said vaping gets young people accustomed to relying on drugs and can encourage them to seek more and different kinds of highs.
“We believe that people are using these things, and it’s a gateway to harder drugs,” Davies said.
Probation Officer Noah Atkinson said the Belmont County Alternative School has seen a total of 286 suspensions this school year, and 140 of those have been for vaping offenses. In 2022 there were 120 suspensions and 46 for vaping. He said many are referred to the Vaping 101 program at Ohio State University Extension Office.
Vicki Falcone, high school counselor with the Bridgeport Exempted Village School District, said vape products seem to be directed to the young.
“Vaping is a major, major issue with our students, and unfortunately it’s easy to buy at some of these local gas stations and the kids all know that,” she said. “It’s so small and so concealable, it’s hard to catch them, and it almost seems these vape companies are catering to attract the young.”
Falcone said it is a generational problem.
“We have an issue, too, with the families that our students are coming from. I have more students coming from families where they’ve had parents that are actively involved in drugs,” she said. “I’ve seen more children living with grandparents because of parents who are on drugs. That seems to be the major issue I think we have with our kids. Thank God for Belmont County Staying Clean Club and Belmont County Juvenile Court.”
Falcone said some youth are warned off by their family members’ examples, but others try drugs and are pulled into addiction.
“We have so many students who are exposed to that, who then go home. They really try to stay away from it. It can be hard, given what they’re exposed to at home. If they go home and Mom and Dad are smoking pot, that becomes OK. That’s the problem.”
Falcone said there is always more need for mental health support.
“We’ve got good kids here, we really do. We’ve got good kids who are just trying to get along and get by.”