DCSD among several local groups planning broad changes to combat youth substance abuse in Douglas County
A group of Douglas County mental health leaders and organizations, led by the Tri-County Health Department, have been strategizing for the last ten months on how to combat teenage substance abuse in Douglas County on a broad scale.
The Douglas County Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition is made up of personnel from the Douglas County School District (DCSD), as well as the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, South Metro Fire Rescue, the Douglas County Youth Initiative, and many other local medical, mental health, law enforcement, general business and faith-based organizations. Rather than planning one-off initiatives or events around substance abuse prevention, these community leaders are focused on conceptualizing and implementing “environmental prevention” efforts, meaning that they want to go even further to change community conditions or policies so that the availability of substances— and their demand— is reduced.
While there could potentially be several areas of focus, the Coalition is addressing three primary areas: reducing underage drinking among individuals aged 12 to 20, reducing prescription drug misuse and abuse among individuals aged 12 to 25 and reducing underage marijuana use among individuals aged 12 to 20.
DCSD Personalized Learning Special Projects Director, Zac Hess, is one of approximately six members representing DCSD on the Coalition. He sees an incredible opportunity for the community to align substance abuse prevention initiatives to create real change for Douglas County youth.
“I saw such an importance of DCSD playing an active role in this,” said Hess, who has been with DCSD for eleven years. “We have these kids for seven-and-a-half hours a day and we want to do the same work— the prevention work, environmental strategies, changing community policies. We are a huge resource in these kids lives when we’re talking about substance abuse prevention.”
According to Hess, DCSD’s presence helps to provide insight to other members of the Coalition regarding existing prevention programs and areas in which DCSD schools can greatly benefit from community partnerships.
“There have been a couple of ideas we suggested that the coalition wants to get on board with, and they are asking how can they help push things and support these initiatives as a governing body of the county,” Hess said.
The Coalition began in March 2016 as a result of a grant that the Tri-County Health Department received from the Colorado Department of Human Services Office of Behavioral Health. A four-year program timeline, the grant stipulates that efforts must be environmental in nature.
“When we’re talking about environmental strategies, that means it has to be a community-wide change or policy change. For our schools, it can mean a district-wide policy change,” Hess explained. “One example I brought up was the way we, in the district, handle discipline around drug and alcohol offenses. Each school handles these differently. But would this be something to investigate? Is there a better manner of addressing these things that is consistent? Could we create more of an environmental shift if members in the coaltion had suggestions for a better way to address these things?”
Warning signs of substance abuse
Personal items: breath mints, lighters, eye drops, pipes or vape devices
Household items missing: cash from your wallet, prescription medications, marijuana, alcohol
Physical: Sleeping in late, feeling ill after spending time with friends, bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils, change in speech patterns
Personality: stressed out, lack of energy, intense about going out with friends, grades dropping
Social life: not checking in, going to parties a lot, breaking curfew, not letting you meet their friends, discussions of substance use on social media.
Read more about warning signs and find other resources at www.dougcoprevention.org.
With so many perspectives and voices on the Coalition, Hess believes they can come up with viable options to help provide support for youth in these situations, while still holding them accountable for their behaviors.
“Sending a kid home, unsupervised, is not going to reduce drug use and abuse. In this Coalition we have people who deal with all aspects of drug abuse in the community who see how it affects communities and families, and they bring a wealth of information. They are willing to say let’s utilize all the resources we have here to find a better option than just suspending kids,” he said.
“I think that it’s really important that we’re showing up to the table saying we’re dedicated to this community— not just our tunnel vision of what’s going on in the schools, but saying we understand that our kids have an impact on this county and we’re here for support,” Hess continued. “We hear it, parents don’t feel like they have the support in the community for a lot of things. It’s hard to get mental health support, it’s hard to get drug counseling, it’s not an easy thing to navigate. So I think it’s important to communicate that we are behind this bigger picture.”
For more information on the Douglas County Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition and for community resources for both parents and teens, visit www.dougcoprevention.org.