Community conversation looks at substance abuse among youth

By Kevin Hotary - Staff Writer
Colchester - posted Mon., Jan. 9, 2012
Students Nick (left), Dante and Tori join in a discussion with group facilitator Barbara Gilbert at the 'Community Conversation.' Photos by Kevin Hotary.
Students Nick (left), Dante and Tori join in a discussion with group facilitator Barbara Gilbert at the 'Community Conversation.' Photos by Kevin Hotary.

Substance abuse can often be the elephant in the room - there for all to see, but no one wants to talk about it, hoping that maybe it will just go away.  But recent data collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse ( suggests that not only is the problem not going away, but it is getting worse.

Between 2009 and 2010, marijuana use among high school seniors was at its highest point since the early 1980s, while use among eighth-graders has also increased. In fact, many measures now show that marijuana use exceeds cigarette smoking among the nation’s youth, concurrent with a decreased perception of the harm of marijuana smoking among kids.

Last June, Colchester students at William J. Johnston Middle School and Bacon Academy were given an online survey, sponsored by the Southeast Regional Action Council, regarding the use and abuse of drugs, alcohol and tobacco by themselves and the rest of the community. Last Thursday, Jan. 5, Colchester Youth FIRST sponsored a community conversation at Bacon Academy, where students, parents, school, town and community organizations gathered to discuss the results of the survey, and what those results might mean for Colchester youths.

“Everyone has the same goal,” Resident Trooper Sgt. Mark Petruzzi said about the conversation, which included more than 100 students and nearly as many parents. That goal was to put everybody in town on the same page regarding substance abuse among town youth, and to help open lines of communication between kids and their parents and officials.

“It’s kind of a scary topic,” said Stephanie Spargo of the Southeast Regional Action Council. “But it’s important to have these conversations,” she added, as it helps parents and children continue talking about the topic at home.

Seventeen towns in the region took the same survey as Colchester students, said Spargo, and one of the scary results that they saw, which agrees with the national data, is that more kids are smoking marijuana than are smoking cigarettes. Spargo said she believes that educating kids about the harmful effects of smoking marijuana will lead to a decrease in its use.

“The more harm associated with a substance, the less likely youth are to use it,” she said.

To most effectively discuss the results of the survey, parents and students were given separate presentations, with students remaining in the cafeteria to play a game – “Plinko” – based on the results of the survey, while parents discussed the results in the library and then heard a presentation by Eric Ebrus, a DEA agent assigned to the Connecticut State Police.

Designed and led by Mike Schaff of Colchester Youth Services, “Plinko” was a game in which students, separated into groups of 10, were asked eight questions based on the survey. Led by an adult moderator, the students discussed each question before giving their answers, erupting in loud cheers when their group answered correctly.

“Everyone else is doing it” is a common response given by kids when doing something that they maybe shouldn’t be doing. The same perception holds for substance abuse among their peers. The survey showed that alcohol consumption among students ranged from about 1 percent of sixth-graders to about 22 percent of ninth-graders.  However, when asked how many of their classmates used alcohol, students guessed significantly more: 6 percent of sixth-graders and 43 percent of ninth-graders.

“The idea that everyone else is doing it is not true,” said Schaff, and this was confirmed by at least a few students. WJJMS eighth-graders Zoe and Haleigh both said they thought more people were using drugs or alcohol than the survey showed. “Some of the facts were really surprising,” said Zoe, who, like Haleigh, has seen some abuse even at the middle school level.

“There are a few people that you can tell [are using drugs or alcohol], but not many,” added Haleigh.

In the library, Ebrus was discussing the signs of drugs abuse with parents, starting with marijuana. “You see this stuff sitting around the house? Red flag!” he said of both the more obvious paraphernalia like pipes and bongs, and some less obvious things, like scales capable of measuring small quantities. “Why would a 15-year-old have a digital scale in their room?” he said.

Some drugs, like methamphetamines, “haven’t hit the east coast as bad as the west coast and the middle of the country,” he said. But “heroin is back,” he cautioned. Prescription drugs are also popular, because “everybody knows what they’re getting. Each pill is the same,” said Ebrus. A common place for kids to get hold of prescription drugs is in their own home or the home of a relative, where unused pills often sit.

"If you’re not using the stuff, get rid of it,” he said.

To see the complete results of the survey given to Colchester students, go to

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