Giving parents the straight dope

Drugs: Through newsletters and talks, a program addresses issues facing teens.

October 10, 2001|By Laura Dreibelbis | Laura Dreibelbis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the fall of 1994, Lynda Mitic, assistant principal at Oakland Mills High School, noticed that many students with academic and behavior concerns also had a drug or alcohol problem. She decided to have a meeting with parents and substance abuse professionals, but few parents showed up.

"Denial is such a huge piece of this problem," said Mitic, now principal at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. "We felt that there was a need to educate the community about drug and alcohol abuse."

At the time, Howard County schools didn't want to advertise it if they had a problem, Mitic said. The community was reluctant, she said, to deal with the issue openly.

Later in the 1994-1995 school year, some parents discovered that a number of teens on an athletic team were using marijuana and went to Mitic for help.

The Eastern Coalition Against Substance Abuse was organized in partnership with educators, parents, the business community and substance abuse professionals. The group wanted to educate and support parents and raise awareness in schools.

Its first newsletter was distributed to about 1,200 families in the Oakland Mills area. This year, 20,000 copies were circulated to families with middle school- and high school-age children in Howard County public schools.

In its second year, the group began a speaker series - now a monthly event - to bring together parents for support, networking and development of skills to deal with issues facing teens. Topics for this school year's speaker series, "Issues in Parenting," include unsupervised time, teen driving, teen depression and stress, and safety in Ocean City during Senior Week celebrations.

The group changed its name to HC DrugFree in 1999. All public middle and high schools belong to the coalition, along with the county school system, law enforcement, substance abuse agencies and the Chamber of Commerce.

Betty Vandermaus, a volunteer and mother of two boys who attend Mount Hebron High, said education is a key for parents, and there is a lot of material out there.

"We need to get the parents up to speed before the crisis," Vandermaus said.

Mitic agrees. "I've worked with so many kids who have hit the bottom and have to struggle back," she said.

Mitic admires the strength of youths to recover from addiction, but they will be the first to say they wish they had never gone down that road. Anything parents can do to head off the downward spiral is important, she said.

The newsletter contains a variety of information about drug and alcohol abuse, including trends and slang names for substances used by teen-agers, a list of agencies from which to seek help and articles and personal stories of addiction and recovery. The Sun and Howard County General Hospital are partners in HC DrugFree.

The speaker series is a way for parents to find out where teen-agers are spending their time.

At "The Freshman Experience" on Oct. 1, a panel of Mount Hebron seniors talked candidly with parents and eighth-graders about the first year of high school.

Students discussed schedules, college preparation, drugs, alcohol, getting involved in school, making friends, peer pressure and other issues.

Everything comes at you in high school: drugs, sex, anything, panel members said. Peer pressure is different, they added. When parents asked what they should be doing, panelists responded, "Do what you're doing," be involved in kids' lives, stay open and show trust and caring toward teens.

Among future topics for the speaker series: "Drugs, Alcohol, and Teens" will be discussed Oct. 22 at Centennial; the second part is to be held Oct. 29 at Atholton High School. In April, "Healthy Choices: Teen Job and Activity Fair" at Centennial High will spotlight employment and volunteer information for teens, along with suggested safe activities and camps. Last school year, 300 students saw 30 exhibitions; this year's goal is to double the number of exhibitors.

"If we have more opportunities to talk and know whose kids are whose, it makes a huge difference," said Vandermaus, adding that if kids know their parents are talking with other parents, they are less likely to engage in risky behavior.

And just because they're teen-agers, that doesn't mean they have to smoke and drink to have fun, Vandermaus said.

"None of it's a rite of passage," she said.

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