Fairfax County's Unified Prevention Coalition sponsored a forum on the effects of substance abuse on the county's middle and high school children. The resource fair and panel discussion was led by parents, young adults and professionals from the coalition's PROTECT (Parents Reaching Out To Educate Communities Together) task force.
"It's been so long, I'll still be emotional about it," said Greg Lannes about his daughter's heroin overdose in 2008. Alicia Lannes had been 19 when she died and had always been a model student with straight A's. He pointed to the lone framed photo of her on the table and asked the audience, "Does that look like a heroin addict? How did she get to that point?"
Lannes urged the parents at the meeting to get involved as early as middle school. "Don't let go of your kids too early. They need you to be involved."
Taylor Gibson initially rebuffed peer pressure to abuse substances in high school. After her mother's health problems she was left to her own devices and started working in a restaurant with college-aged peers. As she became used to being around them, she was more influenced by their casual attitude about drugs and alcohol. What began with a minor marijuana habit quickly progressed into other serious drugs.
"I was introduced to more drugs. I started using drugs regularly and often." She talked about being arrested several times. After having been given chances half a dozen times, she entered an out-patient program and was sentenced to community service and served a small jail sentence. She told the applauding audience that she'd been clean for five years.
The coalition brings in professional help to assist these youths and help them recover. Jennifer Lewis-Cooper, a PROTECT coordinator, outlined the many contributing factors to help youngsters and teens succeed in feeling worthy. (See sidebar). With these keys to success, "their risk goes down," said Lewis-Cooper. These are "simple, common-sense things." According to the UPC, these "assets" build strength and skills in youth, parents and communities.
Assets that help child/teen self-esteem and offset substance abuse influence:
- High personal integrity
- Perform community service
- Have teachers in their loves that recognize good work
- Have community adults to talk to
- Participate in extracurricular activities
- Parents are available for help
Bill Fulton, a school resource officer coordinator and a Fairfax County police officer, discussed experiences he's had dealing with substance abuse in the schools.
"School resource officials have their hands full," said Fulton. He educated the audience on some of the disturbing trends he noticed among school-age youths and substance abuse. Among those issues, he discussed the rise in bullying, particularly cyber bullying. He also mentioned the increase in teen domestic violence.
He told the audience "it doesn't mean your kids are bad. We're all on the same page." Echoing a strong theme of the evening, he encouraged parental involvement and suggested to start early. "It shows you care," he said.
Fulton instructed parents on current trends within the drug abusing communities such as slang terms and social media outlets like Instagram. Fulton noted that parents "are not sitting down and eating dinner with you anymore." He encouraged parents to be as engaged as possible. He noted, "They'll walk away respecting you. It shows that parents care."
Desiree Gordon, a clinical supervisory with the Falls Church Youth & Family Services, illustrated community statistics on the drug scene in Fairfax County. She also provided advice to reduce the potential for substance use.
"Parents, you have to be available for your kids. You need to know where they are. Be real clear and set consistent limits. Teachers need to take notice and give credit when credit is due. The community needs to make extracurricular activities available to kids. Parents, you don't have to figure it out yourself. Be a part of their life."