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Bill looks at problem of prescription drugs in schools

JEFFERSON CITY – With little more than a sweep of his hand, Gov. Matt Blunt could sign into law a bill aimed at curbing one of the fastest growing drug problems – the sharing of prescription drugs among students.

State Sen. Kevin Engler R-Farmington and State Rep. Steven Tilley R-Perryville, who sponsored identical bills in their respective sessions, believe the law is necessary to close a loophole that currently limits schools’ actions when they catch students with someone else’s prescription drugs. Both bills are ready to go before Blunt, but he needs only to sign one to establish the law.

“It won’t stop drugs, but it will give us another tool to use to get some help for these kids, said Engler, sponsor of Senate Bill 254. “Right now, the school kicks them out and they get no help.”

Tilley sponsored House Bill 355 after school officials called his attention to a growing problem with prescription drug misuse. Officials were frustrated because they could not refer students to the juvenile system to ensure that students get counseling.

“I checked with legislators around the state, and this wasn’t just a local problem,” Tilley said. “Hopefully, we can catch kids who are making bad decisions and we can correct them so they make better choices in the future.”

Although neither Engler nor Tilley know when Blunt will address their bills, but both are confident the growing problem in schools will persuade him to sign it. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the governor said he had not yet seen the bill, but expects to sign it.

A national study released last month by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America indicated that 18 percent of teenagers reported abusing Vicodin and 10 percent reported abusing OxyContin, both of which are strong painkillers. An additional 10 percent reported using the stimulants Ritalin and/or Adderall and 9 percent said they had abused over-the counter cough medications such as Robitussin, according to the report.

Tilley said he sponsored the bill after local school officials and juvenile officers noted an increase in the number of students using others’ medicine at school.

“We are seeing prescription drug problems in our high school and, unfortunately, even a little at our middle school,” West County Superintendent Stacy Stevens said. “The minimum punishment is a 10 suspension and 45 to 90 days in the alternative school. We also require them to get drug counseling as a condition to coming back to school.”

Schools typically prohibit prescription drugs unless they are labeled for a student and are dispensed by the school nurse to that student per doctor’s orders. Students caught with prescription drugs often are treated the same as those who have illegal drugs. Although schools may refer illegal drug users to the juvenile justice system, Missouri does not have a law allowing the same referral to students who abuse prescription drugs. Stevens believes that if Blunt signs the bill into law, school districts will have an additional tool to reinforce their policies.

“Anytime we can get help from an outside agency such as juvenile services or local law enforcement, it’s a plus,” Stevens said. “It’s one more deterrent for a student who otherwise might be willing to take the chance of 10 days out of school.”

State Rep. Brad Robinson D-Bonne Terre supported the bill, saying that it would help schools provide intervention for students who have started experimenting with drugs.

“Some of these kids might not even know what the medicine is they’re taking,” Robinson said. “This will be a red light for kids who might be starting an addiction.”

The national study also revealed the teenagers in 2004 were more likely to experiment with prescription drugs than they were to use cocaine, crack, LSD, or other illegal drugs. Students noted the availability of prescription drugs in their homes or the homes of their friends.

“When someone in the home has (prescription drugs), it’s certainly easier for a kid to get it out of the medicine cabinet than it is to go down a dark alley to meet with a dealer,” said Dr. David Waters, principal of Farmington High School.

Waters suspects that another reason students gravitate toward prescription drugs is the years of emphasis put on avoiding illegal drugs.

“Oddly enough, we’ve given the impression that illegal drugs are dangerous because you don’t know what is in them or where they came from,” Waters said. “Kids start thinking that because a doctor prescribed them for someone, they must be okay.”

Unfortunately, the underlying reasons for taking any type of drugs remain the same, he added.

“When we look outside ourselves for answers or solutions to feeling bad about ourselves, it’s just a matter of degree what we choose to make ourselves feel better, Waters theorized. “This law would give us another tool that will allow us to access counseling service in the juvenile system so we can help them, not just punish them.”

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