Speaking Bluntly: Administrators attempt to define and end Grady’s implicit drug culture

The Southerner

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By Chris Brown and Brandon Kleber

Last May, Grady alum Joe Lavine, who was a senior at the time, experienced firsthand the consequences of a single, experimental mistake. He and two other ultimate Frisbee players admitted guilt after they were found to be in possession of marijuana at a school-sponsored ultimate Frisbee tournament in Charlotte, N.C.

This is a high-profile example of Grady-related drug use, but it is hardly an isolated one. Student drug use is ingrained not only in the culture at Grady, but, statistically speaking, in teen culture throughout the country.

Several recent studies have revealed an increase in drug and alcohol use among high school students across the nation. According to a report from the National Institutes of Health, roughly 6.5 percent of high school seniors are smoking marijuana daily, compared with 6.0 percent a decade ago and 2.4 percent in 1993. The study also reported that nearly 23 percent of seniors said they smoked marijuana in the past month.

Another study released by Columbia University found that nearly 90 percent of American teenagers say they know classmates who drink, smoke or use drugs. Eight in 10 high schoolers have witnessed illegal drug use, dealing or possession, or have seen students high or drunk on school grounds.

“It’s a common issue everywhere, not just Grady,” assistant principal David Propst said. “It’s at all schools. It’s a battle that we’re fighting every day.”

Most adults within the Grady community understand that the drug culture has become a serious issue, but Lavine contends the students, parents and administration have failed to step up, talk about it and bring awareness to the elephant in the room at Grady.

As a student who has admitted to misconduct, Lavine believes the broader problem of drug presence at schools could be solved only by a more active administration. He acknowledged, however, that such action would be quite difficult to take.

“I know that the Grady administration has a tough job, or thinks that it has a tough job of keeping Grady safe because of the different mix of kids that go to Grady,” Lavine said. “Because some people bring guns to school sometimes, and even more bring drugs, they obviously have to be a little more concentrated on drug awareness and less concentrated on education.”

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: DRUGS AT GRADY

Drugs are a factor in many elements of students’ social interactions, and this is especially true at Grady. Whether it’s exposure through conversation, participation, or association, most students gain experience with drugs at some point in their time at Grady. A survey done by The Southerner of 180 Grady students showed that 73 percent of Grady students have had an experience with drugs.

The survey also showed that 81 percent of students know someone who has been in possession of drugs on campus, and 73 percent of students know someone who has sold or bought drugs on campus.

In an attempt to bolster security on campus, Grady’s administration last year implemented bag checks in the morning at the Eighth Street and 10th Street entrances to the Eighth Street building. The security checks may not have been wholly to prevent students from bringing drugs on campus, but one student dealer said the increased security has made an impact.

“Selling drugs at Grady was a huge money maker, but too risky to bother with now,” said the Grady student, who chose to remain anonymous.

“With the new enforcement on campus, the best thing for people to do is wait until after school and have the business come to you,” the student said. “Because of the checks at the door in the morning and the increase in police force, selling drugs inside the school has become nearly impossible.”

Other students, however, are less confident in the steps the Grady administration has taken to reduce the influence of drugs on campus.

“I think a lot of times the administration doesn’t do as good of a job threatening the students to not bring drugs to Grady,” sophomore Keegan Hasson said. “I don’t think the school’s security measures have helped to cut down on drug use because the backpack checks in the morning are pretty skimpy.”

Although he is cognizant of the drug culture at Grady, Propst said the administration is facing the problem head on.

“The school’s already doing what [it] can,” Propst said. “We all work together. The counselors work with us, the social workers work with us, the resource officers, everybody, we’re all a team. Basically we’re one big family trying to keep the mess out … so the school is doing everything that it can do.”

In fact, several teachers, including debate coaches Mario Herrera and Lisa Willoughby, held a meeting with some parents over the summer at the parents’ request to discuss the drug culture at Grady.

“You would think that by the administration doing something, the drug culture would change,” Herrera said. “But it’s like hitting a feather pillow. You can hit that pillow all you want, but when you hit it in one place, in others, the pillow kind of rises.”

Herrera agreed with Propst, saying that in order for change to come, it’s going to take everyone getting involved.

“It would require a complete change of mentality, complete honesty, and a complete sense of trust,” Herrera said. “Can that be achieved? I think so … I think it’s a battle worth fighting. I mean, no one else is going to do it.”

A TEENAGE RITE OF PASSAGE?

 “The main reason teenagers use drugs is because they’re fun,” said Dr. Steven Jaffe, an expert in child and adolescent substance abuse recovery programs. “Then they find out that it also helps them run away from anxiety, negative feelings and sadness.”

Dr. Stuart Cohen, another local specialist in family therapy and teenage counseling, admits that the availability of drugs contributes to their widespread popularity, and that teenagers view them as sort of rite of passage.

“We have made access to substances very available,” Cohen said. “Every high school I know has easy access to drugs and availability. Thirty years ago, there wasn’t quite so much easy access.”

Lavine believes that it’s less about peer pressure and more about just seeing the people around you benefit from it and not get hurt by it.

Independence from peer pressure is not always easy, though.

“Do peer groups play a role in drug pressure?” journalism teacher and ultimate Frisbee coach Susie Mercer asked. “I would’ve said no, until Southerns [ultimate tournament] last year, and now I feel like it’s more than I thought.”

Some observers may see the issue of marijuana as a moot point since several states, including Colorado and Washington, have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, but Lavine believes the struggles with pot smoking were endemic to the location and environment surrounding Grady before the recent wave of legislation.

“It’s all part of the culture and the environment that we live in,” Lavine said. “The fact that we live in inner-city Atlanta, and we’re just around it all the time. If you grow up around it and your friends start doing it, and everyone around you is doing it, that’s your environment dictating or influencing your actions.”

With 19 states permitting some form of medical marijuana use, the country as a whole is reconsidering the role of drug use in society.

“I think perhaps students are more willing or perhaps more curious because so many states have legalized it,” Herrera said. “There are very contradictory messages that people get, and I would think teenagers are in the same boat.”

According to the “Monitoring the Future” survey, an ongoing study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American adolescents funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more teens are smoking marijuana in part because they see less risk from regular use.

“Drugs are used in direct proportion with availability, and they’re inversely proportional to perceived risk of harm,” said Jaffe, who also specializes in child psychiatry. “If you see a drug as not being harmful, then you’re more likely to use it.”

ABOVE THE INFLUENCE: HOW DO WE FIX IT?

“You never do enough, you never do,” Propst said of efforts to eradicate drugs on campus. “You try to do everything you can. We check at the metal detectors. We bring the dogs in. We do unannounced checks. We use the tip box. We have anonymous tips. … We work with police on it. And that’s how we try to keep [the school] as clean as possible.”

Propst also detailed his personal philosophy on how to prevent drug use among teens. Propst stressed the importance of being proactive, instead of reactive, with young people before they begin experimenting with drug use.

“The thing you need is continued education, interventions and programs. Bring more awareness. That’s how you do it.”

Mercer believes that a better angle to take with kids would be emphasizing the possible consequences that can accompany drug use.

“Say things like, ‘You could lose a scholarship,’ or ‘You could get kicked off the ultimate team,’ or whatever immediate consequences your poorly developed frontal lobe can still grasp,” Mercer said.

Lavine said the need for change, however, starts on a fundamental level, with the relationship between parents and their children. He believes that parents need to be more open and accepting of the choices their children make. Rather than punishing and judging kids, parents should provide them with information and guidance for navigating the high school experience, Lavine said.

“Kids are kids, and adolescents are adolescents,” Propst said. “Everybody makes mistakes. But we need to be proactive instead of reactive. We need to have these intervention programs in place. We need to educate the students and make them aware of what’s going on out there before they make those mistakes.”

Making mistakes after all can be educational but paying for them can change a life or end it.

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