First reported 5/20/2010 12:02 p.m.

The nearly 400 people who attended the alcohol and drug forum on May 19 at Oak Park and River Forest High School heard statistics reporting that drug and alcohol abuse among teens in the two villages is notably higher than in other communities and is sharply on the rise over the past two years.

During the often frank, two-hour discussion about drug activity among students, those gathered inside the main auditorium also heard school officials suggest that closing the campus for all students was on the table. Other measures, including drug sniffing dogs and some collaborative form of random drug testing approved by parents and the school, are also possible, officials said.

A Q&A featuring a panel of experts representing various Oak Park-area agencies that deal with substance abuse followed-questions were written on index cards and read by moderator Iris Saavedra Zaldivar, co-chair of the Citizen’s Council that organized the forum.

Jason Dennis, an OPRF dean who was among the speakers at the forum, mentioned drug testing. He recalled a recent incident with a student who went back to smoking pot after staying clean long enough to pass a mandatory drug test as part of his consequences. Dennis talked about the school developing a random or mandatory volunteer drug testing program that parents can sign their kids up for. Part of the idea, Dennis said, was to give kids a tool to resist peer pressure to use.

There’s also been talk among school officials of closing the campus, he noted. Panelist Janel Bishop, OPRF assistant principal for student health and safety, weighed the pros and cons of a closed campus, one possible downside being incidents that could arise with having so many students inside the cafeteria during 48-minute lunch periods. Concerning using drug-sniffing dogs-a suggestion brought up by an earlier speaker-Bishop said that could be seen as a deterrent.

“It might keep students from choosing to bring drugs into the building. We feel that we have students that bring them in; we have heard of hiding places-they hide them outside the building or bury them behind someone’s bushes. So, it can serve as a deterrent but it’s not alleviating the problem,” Bishop said.

Amy McCormack, a member of the high school board of education, attended the forum. Speaking to Wednesday Journal afterward, McCormack said she’s open to all of the suggestions but did express concern about drug testing. “That concerns the lawyer side of me,” she said, stressing that she’ll need to hear more details concerning every suggestion.

Substance abuse as a ‘lifestyle’

The prevalence of substance abuse at OPRF dominated the forum.

The audience was held in rapt attention as a former OPRF student spoke candidly about falling under the influence of drugs beginning in middle school and throughout the first three years of her time at OPRF. She talked about the great ease with which all kinds of drugs are obtained in Oak Park.

The former student recalled knowing seventh and eighth graders at the former Emerson Junior High who came to school high, and students ditching class to get alcohol from their locker. She recalled some kids being sent to rehab for their addictions, and noted that things were similar when she arrived at OPRF. (Read her comments in Viewpoints, Page 21. See the video of her comments at

“I knew that you could buy weed at school; you could buy it in the alley, which is where people can smoke cigarettes because it’s only a block away from school,” she said.

Several speakers talked about kids’ attitudes toward taking drugs. Dennis explained that some students see it as part of a lifestyle. Margo Bristow, a substance abuse counselor at the high school, named several drugs of choice that students admit to using. She noted that her referrals for student users has gone from 121 students two years ago to more than 200 just this past April.

The school’s internal data shows that 40 to 50 percent of the student body-about 1,400 to 1,600 students out of a total population of around 3,200-said they have smoked marijuana, Dennis said. And those that are selling, he added, market their product via text messaging. Bristow, Dennis and others stressed that substance abuse reached all student demographics.

“We have a critical mass of students who are smoking marijuana,” Dennis said. “We’ve also gotten to the point that those students who are smoking, it’s not just the burnouts, whoever that is. It’s our athletes, it’s our honors and AP (advanced placement) students; it’s our white students, it’s our black students, it’s our wealthy students, it’s our low-income students-it’s our students from all over, both communities.”

Cmdr. Keenan Williams of the Oak Park police echoed that sentiment. He also talked about how law enforcement is handling the substance abuse issue. Williams noted that heroin use was particularly bad at the high school. He also told the audience that kids are clever and will try to fool you concerning their addictions. He held up an empty, 10-inch aluminum iced tea can recently taken from a teen who used it to hide drugs. The top of the can had been cut off and Williams showed how it could be removed and put back on without notice.

The police, he said, know the drug hot spots in the Oak Park and River Forest communities-the places where drugs are most commonly sold and used. He refrained from giving specific locations, which police are monitoring, but said these places are not a secret.

Concerning the middle schools, Wednesday Journal spoke with Dist. 97 Supt. Constance Collins after the forum-officials from the Oak Park elementary school district were invited to attend but were not asked to sit on the panel or provide speakers.

The few incidents with students that have occurred and win which students were disciplined have been few and far between, Collins said. And while she’s aware that substance abuse is occurring, Collins said the district doesn’t know to what extent it exists among the entire student population. Such information, she noted, could be gleamed using the annual climate survey that’s conducted in the spring.

“It would be great to get that information from our students to see what’s going on,” said Collins, who added that both districts must work together to find a solution to the problem.

The Citizen’s Council is planning a follow-up roundtable discussion on June 1 in the school’s cafeteria.

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Their words

Quotes from the drug forum

OPRF parent Rosemary on her son’s drug and alcohol issues:

“My son didn’t drink to get drunk. He had two drinks everyday to ‘feel normal.’ That was a crushing statement to hear. To feel normal, my son had to drink. He said, ‘I hate to feel socially awkward; I hate feeling like I don’t fit in.'”

Margo Bristow, OPRF substance abuse counselor, on the potency of today’s marijuana: “What we talk about sometimes is what is weed like right now compared to how it was. A lot of our families say, ‘You know, a little bit of getting’ high is OK. I was getting high as a kid so my kids can get high-it’s not a problem; it’s experimental.’ The marijuana these days, right now is considered 700 times more potent, and has more impact on the body than the weed from the ’60s and ’70s.”

Oak Park Police Cmdr. Keenan Williams on myths about drug users: “It’s not always the ‘bad kids,’ those kids you might look at and say ‘Oh, that kid’s bad, or that kid’s from over there.’ They’re getting the drugs from people they know. They all have contacts. They have connections, they have friends. Everyone knows somebody that knows somebody else that you can get these drugs from.”

John Williams, director of youth services for OP/RF townships, on parents becoming more involved: “We ask our kids to do things that we don’t have the guts to do. We ask them not to get into a car with someone who’s drunk or high and we do. Or we ask them to get out of the car with us when we’re drunk. What are you prepared to do, you’ve got to start doing something different because what we’re doing now-it ain’t working.”

OPRF’s Jason Dennis on peer pressure among students:

“Once you get in that groove of someone who smokes marijuana in the school, there’s an additional level of peer pressure which is: who can do more? We’re all familiar with who can drink more, well; it becomes who can smoke more.”

Teen substance abuse therapist Diane Gilliard on how drugs affect the mind and body:

“There are both short-term and long-term physical and psychological affects of substance use on teens. Learning and development is greatly affected; but because alcohol and drugs affect thinking and problem-solving, learning motivation and memory, school performance deteriorates. And that’s certainly one thing that parents often notice when kids start experimenting with drugs.”

Supt. Attila Weninger responding to a claim that OPRF is “ground zero” for drug activity in the two villages:

“Ground zero is not the high school. It is wherever the kids are. Whether it’s in a home, on the street, in a park district facility or grounds, at a school, in a church, in employment, or anywhere in our two villages-ground zero is helping our kids wherever they are.”

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