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Group: Early action needed to stem drug use among teens

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

While the recent onslaught of heroin overdoses in the region has not claimed the lives of teenagers, the leader of a group whose mission is to curb drug use among youth says early prevention and detection could have saved lives.

“The unfortunate thing is that with all of the overdose deaths we have seen — especially in their 20s — schools do not associate with them because they've already graduated,” said Debbie Kehoe, executive director of The Alliance for Safe and Drug Free Children — a Franklin Park-based nonprofit group. “But the bottom line is that (drug users) didn't start when they were out of school. They started when they were in school.”

Her mission is to “fight the denial issue and the enabling issue,” Kehoe said.

“The drugs today are too powerful to give kids just one chance. We need to take action today,” she said.

Kehoe partners with about 30 schools — including Quaker Valley, Cornell and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart — to offer programs and provide resources to help with preventing drug abuse.

A series of town-hall meetings — including one on Feb. 25 at Cornell High School — was planned well ahead of the recent heroin overdoses, Kehoe said. Another is planned next month at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.

But in between programs offered through Kehoe's group, school districts' staff say, they offer resources and look out for possible drug- and alcohol-abuse issues.

At Quaker Valley High School, initial identification of suspected drug abuse typically is made by teachers who observe a student “behaving outside of their normal behavior,” nurse Aimee Benedict said.

“We do not ask teachers to assess whether the behavior is (drug- or alcohol-) related,” she said. “When the behavior is noticed, teachers are to notify the main office, the guidance office or the nurse that the specific student needs to be seen. If the teacher smells marijuana or alcohol on a student, they are to notify the main office immediately. In this instance, the student is assessed by the principal and nurse. Parents are notified of the incident. If drugs or alcohol are found on the student or in their belongings, the student then enters the discipline aspect of the school district policy.”

Staff members who are part of the school's student-assistance team can become involved in an effort to help children facing a variety of issues, Benedict said. Staff members can file a referral form if they think a student is at risk.

“Students who violate the (drug and alcohol) policy have to be assessed by a licensed adolescent drug and alcohol facility and follow the recommendations of the facility, per district policy,” Benedict said. “Parents who express concern about the (drug and alcohol) use of their adolescents and who are looking for help are given information on local facilities that can help.”

Student-assistance programs are mandated by the state, but a drop in funding has weakened the resources available, said Kehoe, of the local drug alliance organization.

“Student-assistance programs used to get a considerable amount of funding from the state,” said Kehoe, who used to work as a student-assistance counselor in the North Hills and Fox Chapel Area school districts before joining the alliance. “They'd use that money for programs. Some used it to fund a counselor.”

Similar to Quaker Valley, Moon Area School District offers staff training, spokeswoman Megan Edwards said.

District staff members utilize the township's police department on how to recognize certain drugs, she said.

Staff and, sometimes, students report suspected abuse, Edwards said.

A student-assistance program in the North Allegheny School District can develop a plan for youths who have used drugs or alcohol, district spokeswoman Joy Ed said.

“There is generally a parallel instructional-support process developed which incorporates daily or weekly follow-up for that student, as is deemed necessary and appropriate,” she said.

School leaders at Quaker Valley, Moon Area and North Allegheny listed a variety of programs for educating students in an effort to prevent drug and alcohol abuse, including school-day health classes, Students Against Destructive Decisions groups, and after-school and community programming.

Providing such an array of programs helps, the alliance's Kehoe said, but added that “whatever you teach the kids will go in one ear and out the other.”

That is why, she said, she believes in constant programming and reminders for children.

“It needs to be reinforced at home, by parents, at school, in churches, at businesses,” she said. “We all need to be on the same page instead of putting our heads in the sand.”

Tony Parrish contributed to this report. Bobby Cherry is an associate editor for Trib Total Media. Reach him at

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