Originally created 04/25/06

Searches by officers struggle to keep students clean

The war on drugs has had a frontline in schools since the start.

Recent headlines show that the battle continues.

In March, seven Aiken High School students were found with marijuana during a drug search by sheriff's officers and drug dogs.

That same month, a 14-year-old Lakeside High School student made the news after a teacher said he dropped a small amount of marijuana on the gym floor.

Though most officials say that drugs aren't a big or worsening problem in schools, the fact is that drugs are a constant concern.

According to information given to The Augusta Chronicle, As of April 20, 58 students were disciplined for drug-related infractions in Richmond County this school year. Columbia County had 98 students through April 24, and Aiken County had 30 as of March 3.

Those numbers don't always reflect the actual number of drugs at any given school during any given school year, either.

Yet schools try.

With watchful teachers, searches with drug-sniffing dogs or officers on patrol in parking lots, the quest is on for illegal substances.

Though not every search finds drugs and not every drug is found by a search - administrators say many drugs found result from student tips - the results can be alarming.

Contraband including marijuana and prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin, pocketknives, cigarettes, other illegal drugs and alcohol, turns up in drug searches, said Lakeside High School Principal Jeff Carney.

Although it's not an everyday occurrence, students watch as some of their classmates face criminal drug charges.

"I think that drugs are bad, but the problem isn't as bad as everyone makes it seem," said Eric Herbert, 18, a senior at Fox Creek High School.

He might be right.

NATIONALLY, THERE IS good news about teens and drugs.

"It's gone down pretty dramatically," said Rafael Lemaitre, the deputy press secretary for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "By any survey you look at, drug use is down."

Citing a Monitoring Our Future survey done by the University of Michigan, Mr. Lemaitre said there has been a 20 percent decline in youth drug use in the past four years, resulting in 700,000 fewer high school-age youths taking drugs than in 2001.

That doesn't mean the problem is solved.

"Even though drug use is down, it is still too high," he said. "It's not good for their academic success and their health. Every new generation of young people needs to get that message."

The question remains: Are enough students getting that message?

Aiken High Principal Joe Padget said that message is getting through more than most people think.

What the recent drug busts at his school show, he said, is that out of a large population of students (Aiken High has 1,600), only a few are involved with drugs.

"We aren't talking about 1,600 kids," he said.

A school might not be overrun with drug users or drug dealers, but the truth is that random drug searches rarely net every offender.

"I don't think the number of people caught represents the actual number of drug users," said Liz Shepard, 18, a senior at Aiken High who said she believes many drug users find ways around searches.

Eric, from Fox Creek, had similar observations.

"People will still do it outside of school no matter about the searches," he said.

THAT'S THE CONSTANT struggle, Mr. Padget said. Even as schools check for drugs, the fact remains that there are drugs in the students' neighborhoods.

"The school is a reflection of the community and of society," he said. "You can look and see drug busts outside the school in the paper. There are drugs out here and the kids do them, but they are not the only ones."

Because the country has a drug problem, it's going to spill over into the classroom, he said.

"I don't know if 'culture' is the right word, but they go to movies and it's seen as the cool thing to do and it's not bad," Mr. Padget continued. "We've all seen the movies where they smoke marijuana and nothing gets done, nothing happens to them."

In the real world, Mr. Padget explained, especially in schools, that's not how it works. There are those looking out for lawbreakers and that is why it's so important that drug searches take place.

"In some instances, the kids are being told drug use is OK, and in reality, drugs are illegal. They are not only against school rules but also illegal," he said. "We have to play that up to kids and get them to understand that there are extreme rules and consequences (for drug use) and it can be more than just what happens at school.

"As a school, we have to say that because of that (illegality) we have to look at them 'under the influence' or 'in possession' and say that we don't uphold that or condone that in any way."

Chevon Howell, 17, a senior at Aiken High, isn't convinced that it makes a lot of difference.

"I think people are going to do drugs whether they are caught or not," he said.

The thing to do then, Mr. Lemaitre said, is to stress that teen drug use is less of a criminal problem and more of a public health problem.

"We want them to get the message that drug use is not good for their health or their futures," he said.

Mr. Carney seemed to agree.

"Using drugs is a poor decision in the first place but one of the dumbest places to have drugs is at school," he said. Whether a student gets caught in a search or is reported, Mr. Carney said, "You're going to get in trouble, one way or another."

Teen Board member Lauren Ellis contributed to this report.

Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or kamille.bostick@augustachronicle.com.

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