Despite being one of the highest performing school systems in the state, Columbia County had almost double the drug cases as the lesser achieving Richmond County over the last three years and had a particular presence that its neighbor did not: prescription pills.
The overwhelming drug of choice in both districts was marijuana, but more than 30 percent of Columbia County’s 296 cases involved pills, while just 11 percent of Richmond County’s 164 cases did, according to three years of incident reports reviewed by The Augusta Chronicle.
Statistics can be swayed by the strength of enforcement and detection by campus safety officers as well as their diligence in reporting the offenses. However representatives from both districts told The Chronicle their policy is to file a report for every drug found on campus.
Susan Porter, of The National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, said that dynamic makes sense given the demographics of the districts. Columbia County is whiter and wealthier with more access to health care – the most common traits in users and abusers of prescription pills.
“What you’re seeing is sort of a contradiction of public perception that substance abuse is more prevalent among minority, low-income populations, which isn’t necessarily true at all,” said Porter, the vice president and director of policy research and analysis at CASA. “The prescription pill issue is tightly linked to accessibility, availability and the types of issues that the parents of these kids are being treated for.”
The top three prescription drugs found in Columbia County – a district that is about 70 percent white with just a third of kids on free or reduced lunch – were hydrocodone, Adderall and Xanax.
According to the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, hydrocodone was the fourth-most-common drug found in overdoses in 2010.
Of all overdose deaths in the state in 2010, 85 percent involved prescription pills, and whites accounted for 90 percent of those deaths, according to GDNA.
Columbia County Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Robert Jarrell said despite the numbers, he doesn’t believe there is necessarily a drug problem in his schools.
With an average 24,000 students at the time, the roughly 300 drug cases over the last three years make up a small pool of offenders, one that is an unfortunate expectation in today’s society.
“I don’t see it as a huge concern,” he said. “Certainly our schools are a reflection of society. We do have those issues, and we’re going to see those issues, but I don’t see it as a huge problem.”
Both Richmond and Columbia counties’ school safety departments perform monthly drug checks of cars and lockers with K-9 units at the schools. Almost all incidents involving drugs result in a tribunal hearing and an assignment to the alternative programs in each county, with the sentence depending on the offense. In Columbia County all drug cases are reported to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, but not all are prosecuted, according to Capt. Steve Morris. In Richmond County, school safety handles the cases and brings in the sheriff’s office for more serious incidents.
Richmond County Chief Alfonzo Williams said officers must build relationships at the schools to educate students about the dangers of drugs and help them feel comfortable enough to report drugs on campus.
Richmond County schools, which are 73 percent black and where 78 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, had a stronger presence of marijuana than any other drug and had about seven offenses in elementary schools, while Columbia County had none in those grades, according to the reports.
“A lot of it depends on intelligence reported from other students,” Williams said. “We bring a number of folks from the gang task force, and we educate about awareness, prevention and all of that helps curb the problem.”
Richard Epter, the medical director at the Augusta Pain Center, said parents also have to play a role in ensuring children don’t have access to pain medication at home.
He said when misused, pain medication can be highly addictive. Over the last two decades, pain medicine has replaced illicit drugs as the leading cause of overdose deaths and has become an appealing high for young people.
For that, his staff counsels all patients on safe storage of pain medicine and how to keep them away from children. He said the most common way people get prescription drugs illicitly are from friends and family, and that includes children who take pills from their parents’ medicine cabinets.
“Their friends who may visit their homes search through their medicine cabinets and obtain the drugs as well,” Epter said. It’s scary.”
Marty Jackson, the head football coach of the Evans High School, said he knows pills have a presence in Columbia County schools but it’s not a subject that is brought up by students to him often. When he taught health classes, he explained the dangers and addictions of drugs but said he never viewed it as a crisis at his school.
He remembers being a student at a Catholic high school in Alabama back in 1978, where drugs always filtered in and out. However he recognized the drugs of choice have evolved, and students have to be aware of the dangers.
“It’s just a fact of life,” he said. “When I was a kid, there was smoke coming out of the bathrooms and billowing in the hallways. We do our best to teach the dangers, and that’s what we do.”