LEWISTON — Every now and then, Scott Walker sees his former students out on the city streets. As assistant principal at Lewiston Middle School, Walker usually enjoys the experience.

But not always. Not when those former students have rotted teeth, sunken eyes and dangerous weight loss because they’ve spent their formative years abusing drugs.

“They look like they’re twice their age,” Walker said. “They look like old men and old ladies because they abuse their bodies. It’s terrible.”

Lewiston Schools Superintendent Bill Webster, meanwhile, was starting to think drugs might not be such a big problem when he filled that position in 2010. For the first two years, no cases of drug use or drug dealing came through his office.

“In the last four months,” Webster said Thursday, “that has changed dramatically.”

Since the start of the school year, nearly two dozen cases of drug use or possession have been reported at the high school. At least three involved students found to be distributing drugs.

With that in mind, dozens of people turned out Thursday night for a forum that aimed to tackle the matter head-on. Walker and Webster were two people on a panel of seven to address the group, and the message was clear from the start: Drugs in schools is not a problem unique to Lewiston, but it is on the rise here. And the problem is no longer just for young adults.

“It doesn’t start in the high school,” Walker said. “It doesn’t start in the middle school. It starts in the elementary schools, and that is scary.”

The panel was made up of school officials, substance-abuse experts and a police officer, but perhaps the most eye-opening observation came from one who spends her days closer to the problem than any of the others.

LHS junior Paris Noddin told the group that it isn’t just poor kids and the children of drug abusers who are getting into trouble. It isn’t just the wealthy or the jocks, either. The problem with drugs in school, Noddin said, runs from one end of the spectrum to the other.

“I don’t see it in just certain groups. I see it every day and I hear about it all the time,” said Noddin, a dark-haired teenager who described herself as an average student. “People joke about it like it’s funny. It makes me uncomfortable. It makes me scared.”

It scares plenty of adults, as well. Roughly two dozen showed up for the forum. Some were parents. A few were grandparents. Several were community members concerned about what they’ve been hearing about drugs in the local schools. And why not? The matter has been getting media attention lately, particularly after an organized search of Lewiston schools last month involving almost every police dog in the state.

“That wasn’t a ‘gotcha,'” LHS Principal Linda Mackenzie said of the December search operation that garnered so much press. “We wanted students to know that drugs are not acceptable here.”

Indeed, there was nothing stealthy about the searches. School officials sent letters to parents of students to advise them that it was coming. Still, school administrators were braced for criticism.

“We were concerned,” Mackenzie said, “about community backlash.”

No drugs were found by police and their dogs but the message was received. Several people in the audience Thursday said they approved of the searches and wanted to see more. By and large, support for the effort — even the majority of students were in favor of them — was stronger than most school officials expected.

“It really did not yield the kind of controversy we had wondered about,” said Vicky Wiegman, substance abuse coordinator at the high school.

Wiegman, in that position since 1987, speaks with students directly when they get in trouble over some kind of substance. She also keeps a close watch on the trends and on input from the students themselves. At the forum Thursday night, she had plenty of numbers to share with the group following a recent survey of 900 LHS students and 500 from the middle school.

There’s both good news and bad news to be found in the numbers. The number of kids at both schools who acknowledged using alcohol is lower than the state average. According to the survey, just over 19 percent of high school and 6 percent of middle school students admitted to drinking liquor.

Meanwhile, 19.6 percent of high school students and 6.6 percent from the middle school reported using marijuana, numbers that are above the state average.

According to the survey, 21 percent of LHS students reported being offered or sold drugs on school property. More than half of the high school students reported that they believe smoking pot causes little or no harm, with 34 percent of middle school students reporting the same thing.

One encouraging number: More than 85 percent of students reported that their families have clear rules on the use of drugs and alcohol.

“That’s a piece that’s very important,” Wiegman said.

When school kids are found using or providing dope on school property, they face a 10-day suspension and possible expulsion. They can ease the punishment somewhat by getting involved in a student intervention program. School officials stressed that they would much rather get a student back on track than simply punish them.

“We want them to graduate,” Principal Mackenzie said. “That’s why we come to work every day.”

“When kids are using substances, they no longer care about being in school,” Walker said. “We need them to care.”

“We all have the same goals,” Lewiston School Resource Officer Craig Johnson said. “And that’s to enhance the safety and education of our young people. We instill better values in our young people and we build a better community.”

More police dog searches are planned at the schools, although officials did not say when. More forums are planned, as well, and at the end of the night, members of the audience were invited to jot down their ideas for helping to combat the problem. Although the problem of drugs in schools is no better or worse in Lewiston than elsewhere, the panel members vowed to continue fighting it, mostly through education.

It sounds good to Noddin.

“I don’t like seeing my friends go through this,” she said. “I just want it to stop.”

What can you do?

  • Lock up alcohol in the home.
  • Host an alcohol-free party.
  • Check in with your neighbor and get a conversation started about what you can do.
  • Report parents/adults who host alcohol parties for teens.
  • Plan a fun activity for your family, friends and neighbors to do together.
  • Create opportunities to talk about your expectations and rules about drug and alcohol use with your teen and family.

Advocate makes pitch for legalization

LEWISTON — The forum on drugs at the high school Thursday night came just two days after an initiative was announced to legalize marijuana in Lewiston and other cities.

With pot use quickly becoming a mainstream matter, the forum panel opted to skip debates over the morality of pot use, focusing instead on the abuse of any and all drugs within city schools.

Yet the topic weighed heavily on the mind of at least one person in the audience. David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, offered his thoughts in advance so as not to disrupt the flow of information at the forum.

“Marijuana is already widely available and widely used — regulating it simply sends the messages that marijuana is for adults and should be handled responsibly,” Boyer said.

“Our current marijuana prohibition laws, which allow adults to use alcohol but punish them for using a less harmful substance, are intellectually dishonest,” he said. “Once young people realize that marijuana is not as dangerous as they have been led to believe, they are less likely to trust authorities’ warnings about other more dangerous drugs.

“By forcing marijuana into an underground market, we are guaranteeing that sales will be entirely uncontrolled. Illegal marijuana dealers do not ask for ID. They sell a product that is unregulated and possibly impure and they might expose consumers to other, more harmful drugs. In a regulated market, businesses would be required to ask customers for proof of age and they would face severe penalties for selling marijuana to minors.

“Strictly regulating alcohol and tobacco products and restricting sales to minors have produced significant decreases in use and availability among teens. The rate of teen marijuana use has generally remained steady over the past several years, whereas levels of alcohol and cigarette use have decreased. Simply put, regulation works. “

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