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A rash of risk
Incidents show dangers of teens, substance use
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Forsyth County News

A rash of recent incidents involving teenagers and illegal substances may hint at a larger problem, yet Forsyth County officials say the situation is not as bad as it seems.

That may be so, but there's no disputing the numbers.

Since Oct. 3, at least six local high school students have been arrested on drug charges.  

And between Oct. 4 and 8, two 19-year-olds with ties to Forsyth County were found dead in separate incidents.

While authorities are awaiting toxicology reports to determine what caused the deaths of the young women, accounts of both incidents make references to possible substance use.

Gerald Jenkins, a psychologist with the Center for Psychotherapy of North Georgia in Cumming, said there are various reasons why teenagers try drugs and alcohol.

"I think it's become an expression of their independence and their rebellion, but it's a multifaceted issue in a teenager's life," he said.

It's also an issue that will take center stage this week as the Forsyth County school system observes Red Ribbon Week, part of a national drug prevention program that encourages young people to avoid drugs.

An annual school survey seems to indicate substance use and abuse among local teenagers is not a regular occurrence.

Debbie Rondem, director of student support services for the Forsyth County school system, said results of the anonymous survey, administered annually to middle and high school students, backs up the claim that most are not abusing drugs or alcohol.

For example, last year's survey found that 94 percent of sixth-graders said they had not used alcohol in the past 30 days.

In addition, 90 percent of eighth-graders, 80 percent of 10th-graders and 61 percent of 12th-graders said they had not used alcohol during that same span.

Jenkins said drug and alcohol abuse among teens is one way they "push the boundaries."

"They tend to think that they're invincible or they have no concept that they might get caught or that there might be some danger to this."

The circumstances leading up to October's incidents are still unfolding.

On the first Friday of this month, three 15-year-old students at South Forsyth High School fell ill on campus and were hospitalized after they apparently overdosed on liquid methadone.

They and a 16-year-old female classmate have since been charged with possession of a Schedule 2 narcotic on school grounds. One of the boys also was charged for distribution of the substance, while the girl faces a misdemeanor marijuana charge.

Two other students, one each on Thursday and Oct. 3, were arrested on unrelated drug charges. The students' identities have not been released.

The day after the drug scare at South, Cassondra "Cassie" Ellen Key of Dawson County was found dead in the home of a grocery store employee in northeastern Forsyth.

According to a sheriff's report, the man said Key showed up at the store, apparently intoxicated. He told authorities he did not want her to drive home so he took her to his residence to sleep while he went back to work. Hours later, he returned home to find her dead.

Four days later, Forsyth County teenager Brandy Leigh Hendrix died at what authorities said was a friend's residence in Roswell. She too had reportedly been put to bed because of her condition.

Authorities declined to specify that condition, but a Roswell police report said drugs may have been involved in her death. Hendrix was a 2007 graduate of North Forsyth High.

In some cases, Jenkins said, teenagers' behavior identifies with that of their parents.

"Even though it's not explicitly said there's a kind of nonverbal consent that using drugs is OK of any nature, as in any kind of substance use, be that cigarette smoking, which is also very much a part of this," he said.

"Often the drug of entry is marijuana and they get interested and often they're prey to people who are indeed wanting to be a seller themselves."

Jenkins said drugs such as liquid methadone, the substance authorities said landed the high school students in the hospital, can have a negative impact on brain development in young people.

The synthetic narcotic is used to treat addiction to heroin and other narcotics addictions and is given as a painkiller to those suffering from cancer or other terminal illnesses.

If abused, the drug reportedly can also cause respiratory failure, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, coma and death.

Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton said in many cases, including the incident at South Forsyth, the teenagers don't know what drug they have.

Paxton said the girl who brought the liquid methadone to school told authorities it was hydrocodone. It was later that day, during an interview with her parents, that authorities identified the substance.

"They knew exactly what it was she had removed from the home and it was liquid methadone," he said. "She wasn't even clearly aware of what the substance was that she had taken and given to these kids.

"This just personifies more and more the fact that we continue to stress to not only just kids, but anybody that's taken any type of a substance. You don't know who's been involved in it. You don't know what all they've put into it."

The problem extends beyond Forsyth County.

A 16-year-old Gainesville teenager was found dead Oct. 12, reportedly from alcohol abuse, while vacationing in White County. Terry Warren, 22, of Gainesville, was charged with three counts of furnishing alcohol to underage persons in connection with the girl's death.

A 19-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl were charged with underage consumption of alcohol, also in connection with the incident.

In May, a 17-year-old from Cleveland died five days after going into cardiac arrest from consuming peach vodka at a home in the White County town.

The man who lived there, 22-year-old William Maxton Midget, has been charged with furnishing alcohol to a person under 21, though authorities say he could face additional charges.

Forsyth County authorities and school officials seem to think education is a key factor in preventing substance abuse in teenagers.

Paxton said his agency is charged with law enforcement, but the department also provides information to students and parents about substance abuse.

"The sheriff's office is never going to take the place of parents, nor should we," he said. "That is not our charge under the Constitution. Our job is to enforce the law.

"So I think that the greatest responsibility is still going to lie with parents. We will certainly be there to assist them and answer any questions they may have on particular behaviors."

Paxton said it is important to remember teen drinking and drug use is rare in Forsyth and that "the vast, overwhelming majority of the youth do not participate in these types of activities."

The sheriff's office also provides outreach programs. In about two weeks, the agency will conduct a daylong drug prevention seminar at Vickery Middle School.

Rondem said the school system also offers a variety of programs for students and parents.

For example, the Parent to Parent Program is designed for parents to meet and watch informational videos on various teen issues. They then discuss the videos and limits they can set on their children to prevent substance abuse or other problems facing today's youth.

Rondem said the survey indicates that as students get older, more of them do try alcohol, marijuana, tobacco or other drugs.

"They have a lot more freedom and that's why I like the Parent to Parent program so much," she said. "They're driving or they may not be supervised at home."

This year's survey of middle and high school students, which schools have begun administering, also asks students where they abuse substances.

Last year, 55 percent of the seniors who drank alcohol said they did it at home. Eight percent of them said they drank at school, while 17 percent did so in their cars. A friend's house, at 71 percent, and another place, at 41 percent, also rated high, the survey showed.