Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series produced by the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, although the statistics cited in this article have been updated for Van Buren, Cleburne, Stone and Searcy counties. The entire series will be published online at www.vanburencountydem.com.
Locally, the percentage of 12-graders reporting abuse of prescription drugs is close to or below the state average, according to a fall 2012 survey.
Arkansas already ranks second in the nation in prescription drug abuse, according to Diane Bynum, Horizon Treatment Center coordinator, Western Arkansas Counseling and Guidance Center.
"I think it is more under-diagnosed than most people believe," Bynum said.
Renee Henson, counselor at Van Buren High School, said prescription drug abuse seems to be a big problem, though she notes that she deals with it often, and being immersed in something can skew one’s perception of overall prevalence.
The student trend Henson sees now is marijuana and prescription drug usage.
"I think kids still drink, but they don’t talk about it, and they don’t seem to view prescription drugs and smoking marijuana as being as bad as drinking. That may be because of the anti-drinking education that was so intense when they were younger," Henson said.
In 2007, Arkansas had the worst teen prescription pain reliever abuse problem in the country, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention began an annual voluntary survey in fall 2002. The Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment survey asks students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades to anonymously answer 241 questions about their drug and alcohol use, attitudes and risk factors. Because children in alternate grades are tested, different groups of students are tested each year. State and county survey data is available at www.arkansas.pridesurveys.com.
According to the fall 2012 survey, 0.8 percent of Arkansas’ sixth-grade respondents reported having abused prescription drugs in the previous month. Locally, none of the sixth-grade respondents in Van Buren and Stone counties reported misuse of prescription drugs, while 1.2 percent of Searcy County sixth-graders and 0.5 percent of Cleburne County sixth-graders reported abusing the drugs in the previous month.
According to the survey, high school seniors report the highest rates of abuse. Statewide, 7 percent of seniors self-reported the abuse, down from 9.3 percent in 2009.
Locally, Searcy County 12th-graders reported the highest percentage of usage at 8.7 percent, more than the statewide percentage. Van Buren County seniors were second at 7.1 percent, 1.1 of Stone County seniors and 0.5 percent of Cleburne County seniors.
According to the state Office of the Drug Director, by the time Arkansas high school students reach their senior year, 20 percent have abused prescription drugs.
According to a December 2011 report by the National Institutes of Health National Institute on Drug Abuse, after marijuana, non-medical use of prescription and over-the-counter medications are the most commonly abused drugs by high school seniors. One in 12 seniors reports non-medical use of hydrocodone and one in 20 reports non-medical use of Oxycodone. According to the NIH report, 70 percent of the seniors nationally reported getting the prescription drugs from a friend or a relative.
Nick Spencer, Alma High School assistant principal, said the school is not seeing a significant problem with student abuse of prescription drugs. He said his responses are based upon what the administrative staff is "dealing with."
The issues seen at school are the same as those seen with any other kind of drug abuse — a drop in academic performance, a drop in school attendance, a possible change in friends, Spencer said.
The 2011 statewide assessment survey indicates a strong correlation between substance use and academic performance. According to the report, children reporting grades of D’s or F’s are three times more likely to have used any drug in the past 30 days than are students reporting receiving mostly A’s.
Spencer said Alma administrators started a random drug testing program this year at the high school to better intervene with those children who may have a substance-abuse problem or who may be at risk of one.
The Greenwood School District began a random student drug screening program in the 2003-04 school year.
Superintendent Kay Headley consulted with the Greenwood district’s principals in March to best provide an overview of what the district is seeing regarding prescription drug abuse. Headley said 80 percent of the district’s students, from middle school up, are in the drug testing pool, and the district has increased the number of children tested at the high school.
"Five years ago, prescription drugs were what we were dealing with. They were available and inexpensive. Kids took them out of medicine cabinets at home and at grandparents’ houses. Now marijuana is the drug we see the most," Headley said. "We attribute it to legalization in some places and its acceptability across the country. The legal consequences are only a misdemeanor if arrested, and the person has to have over an ounce now for it to be an issue."
According to the 2011-12 school year report, 24 of 531 tests returned positive for drugs, about 4.52 percent of those given to Greenwood High School students. Nine were repeat tests of students who’d previously tested positive. Overall, 23 of the tests were positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and one was positive for benzodiazepines (a group of sedatives). At the junior high level, four of 161 tests returned positive, all for marijuana. At the middle school level, one of 96 tests returned positive, also for marijuana.
According to the drug testing report, the last time the district had positives at the middle school level was in the 2004-05 school year when two of 199 tests returned positive, also for marijuana.
At the high school level positives ranged from a low of five out of 394 tests in 2004-05 to the 2011-12 high.
The drug issues at school seem to be cyclical, Headley said. Problems develop in groups or clusters, then the school will see a problem-free period.
The Fort Smith School District participates in the Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, said Zena Featherston Marshall, the district’s communication director. The data garnered from the survey is sent to the schools, she said.
District staff do not differentiate regarding how they handle drug usage incidents in school.
"If it’s drugs, it’s drugs. … If a kid has drugs in school without permission, they’re drugs," Featherston Marshall said.
Why They Do It
The Office of the Drug Director report notes: "Prescription drug abuse is not the norm among teens. Far more teens do not abuse drugs than do."
For the 2011 statewide annual Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, 90,468 students were surveyed. Of them, 10.1 percent reported they had abused prescription drugs at some time in their lifetimes.
In fall 2012, 86,424 students took the annual survey. The statewide portion is not yet finalized.