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Photo by Fred Pollard
Drug Free Alton Project Coordinator Melanie Nagel discusses the seriousness of marijuana use during the organization’s first Youth Speak Out event.
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Photo by Fred Pollard
Marquette Catholic High School junior Sarah Minier talks during the Youth Speak Out event at Alton High School April 22. The open forum discussion was an attempt to bring awareness to the issue of drug abuse among teens and was sponsored by the Drug Free Alton Coalition.
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Photo by Fred Pollard
City leaders and concerned community members attended Youth Speak Out, including Alton Mayor Brant Walker, Alton Police Chief Jake Simmons and Alton High School Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Spells.
ALTON – Adults often dismiss the correlation between drug abuse and topics such as bullying, free time or peer pressure.
Those issues are not lost on the teens who see them in action every day.
To bring attention to the subject of drug abuse among young people, the Drug Free Alton Coalition presented an open forum discussion between teenagers, community leaders, parents and concerned citizens April 22 at the first Youth Speak Out event.
“Alton is proud to support Drug Free Alton,” said Alton Mayor Brant Walker, who attended the meeting. “They are a tremendous asset to our community.”
About 30 students from both Alton High School and Marquette Catholic High School gathered at the Alton High School campus. Topics covered during the first meeting included mental health and bullying, the perceived lack of positive activities in the Alton area, and the effects of alcohol, prescription drug use, marijuana and e-cigarettes.
“We want to keep things as positive, open and transparent as we can as we wrestle with these issues,” Greg Gelzinnis of the Drug Free Alton Coalition, who moderated the meeting, said.
Alcohol and drugs
A recurring theme throughout the evening was the easy accessibility of alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription drugs in particular.
Prescription drug use among teenagers is sometimes used to stay alert and focused in the midst of challenging demands regarding workloads and grades, according to some of the students.
Drug Free Alton Project Coordinator Melanie Nagel says the coalition has conducted communitywide surveys, including youth as well as parents and other adults.
“An overwhelming majority of students say they got drugs directly from their own medicine cabinets, their grandparents, or from a friend’s home,” Nagel said. “Meanwhile, an overwhelming number of parents said they thought if someone was abusing prescription drugs, they would be coming from a stranger. So there is a huge disconnect in misinformation, as many parents don’t realize students are getting drugs from their own home.”
Alton Police Department Public Information Officer Pfc. Emily Hejna said the department will properly dispose of any prescription drugs in pill form, no questions asked, all throughout the year. A drop box is located near the front entrance of the station.
Alton Police Chief Jake Simmons reiterated the city has a number of programs in place to curb alcohol abuse, including checkpoints and undercover convenience store visits, and those programs target underage drinking.
“We take alcohol very seriously in our community,” Mayor Walker said.
“Drug Free Alton implements measures as well, such as educating businesses on how to identify (fake) IDs,” Nagel added.
Students such as Rachel Riggins, a junior at Marquette Catholic High School, say positive adult role models are crucial to teaching children and teens the seriousness of underage drinking.
“Sometimes, parents can be irresponsible, so us kids can’t be taught to be responsible if parents provide the alcohol or look away when alcohol is (being used),” she said.
The connection between bullying and drugs
According to the presentation, teens often feel bullying and mental health issues are not addressed and are key reasons why students turn to alcohol and drugs.
Students said they feel teachers sometimes sweep issues under the rug as they are not sure how to deal with incidents related to bullying.
“Just because they are out of school and are older does not necessarily mean that they have figured out how to help students in every single situation,” one student said.
“Bullying has always been on our radar,” Alton High School Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Spells said. “The problem I run into as principal too often is the ‘no snitch’ policy. We’re not told until it becomes a crisis.”
“It doesn’t even have to be the person experiencing the bullying,” Hejna added. “Our job, as people who see things go on, is to get help for people who may not be able to help themselves.”
Chief Simmons asked students how having school uniforms impacts the issue of bullying. Some students responded they feel it can make them a target, while others say everyone wearing the same outfit cuts down on students being critical of what others wear.
The issue of “no tolerance” also was discussed, as some felt its effectiveness is in question.
Nagel said in order for programs such as “no tolerance” to be effective, they have to adapt with shifts in behavior and trends.
“Are there better ways or different policies that can really engage students, provide better skill building for both bullies and those who are bullied?” she asked.
Alternatives to keep youth entertained
To replace negative pastimes, the coalition brought up a number of other avenues for teens, including volunteer work with nonprofit organizations, church-sponsored events and Riverbender.com activities.
Limited options in the area and cost of activities available were discussed. One member of the audience suggested there are enough activities in Alton, but an increase in education, such as one main and organized bulletin board at the schools or announcements over the intercom for specific events, could help spread the word.
One student’s suggestion was for more interaction between students of Alton High School and Marquette, expanding the opportunity for accountability and positive influences.
“Even though you may not be Catholic, we are all different, so you can still come together and make new friends,” she said.
The open forum is the first in a series organized by the Drug Free Alton Coalition. Gelzinnis says it is an uphill battle, but communication and a plan of action are key.
“Peer pressure is tough,” Mayor Walker said. “These are very tough topics and there are no easy answers, but the answers will start right here.”
The Alton Police Department has an anonymous drug tip hot line where students can share information at (618) 465-5948.