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Mesa County School District Cites Marijuana Legalization For Rise In Student Drug Cases

Grand Junction High School, counseling center
Laura Palmisano
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A year after recreational marijuana stores opened, Colorado is still trying to determine the impact on youth who aren't legally allowed to use pot.

Recently released data shows that in the last school year drug incidents in Colorado middle and high schools reached a ten-year high and certain districts standout in the data.

Last year, Mesa County Valley School District 51 also reported more student drug cases than it had in the past ten-years.

This is the first story in KVNF's two-part series on student drug use in the Mesa County Valley School District.

 With nearly 22, 000 students, Mesa County Valley School District 51 is the 12th largest district in the Colorado. 

According to state data, this district saw student drug incidents increase 22 percent last school year from the previous one.

District 51 reported 200 incidents. That’s just under 10 cases per one thousand students—one-third higher than the state average.

"I’m not sure I can explain, but I can offer some suggestions," Cathy Haller, the prevention services coordinator for District 51, said. 

Haller said the district pays a lot of attention to the issue.

"We have some grants happening at the district level that support the schools," she said. "So I think there's a greater awareness of substance use and of ways that we need to identity students in need of those supports."

When school districts report drug incidents to the state they lump all substances from pills to pot together.

Haller said the District 51 sees some tobacco, alcohol and prescription drug cases, but most drug incidents within its schools are related to marijuana.

She said since Colorado legalized pot it’s become easier for students to get it.

"We don’t have this in hard data, but anecdotally kids will tell us they got it from their parents or they got it from a friend’s parents," Haller said. "And, that doesn’t mean it was necessarily supplied by them, but they were able to secure it in their own home where as that didn’t used to be the case."

District 51 also refers a high percentage of student drug incidents to law enforcement. 

Kevin Bavor, Grand Junction Police Department, school resource officer.
Laura Palmisano
/
Kevin Bavor, with the Grand Junction Police Department, is a school resource officer for 12 schools in Mesa County.

Last school year, it referred 64 percent of cases to police. Statewide the average is about 35 percent.

Haller said the district has school resource offices on campus. And, that might be one reason the number of incidents reported to police is so high.

"I think another issue is an inconsistency in reporting because often times in administration we’ll indicate that a case has been referred to law enforcement when they bring the school resource office in on the conversation," she said. "It doesn’t necessarily mean the youth has been ticketed into court or anything else."

The district has 11 school resource officers that it splits between more than 40 campuses.

Kevin Bavor, with the Grand Junction Police Department, is assigned to 12 schools.

"I believe the school district is very good about letting law enforcement know about any drug interactions they have on the school campus whether is a suspicion that a kid is using drugs or that there is drug use at home or whether if they've caught the student with drug paraphernalia or drugs on them," Bavor said.

Recent data compiled by Rocky Mountain PBS I News from the Colorado Department of Education shows last school year drug incidents in Colorado middle and high schools reached a ten-year high.

That increase is being driven by more cases at middle schools.

Officer Bavor said when it comes to student drug incidents, he mainly deals with marijuana.

"I think it’s becoming way more acceptable among the teens these days and the younger teens to use marijuana," he said.

Meghan Roenicke, Grand Junction High School
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF
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Meghan Roenicke is an assistant principal at Grand Junction High School.

Grand Junction High School reported the most drug cases within District 51 last school year. 

It is also the largest school in the district. 

"You know we will have two or three alcohol conduct violations a year," Meghan Roenicke, an assistant principal at Grand Junction High School, said "The majority of our [drug cases are] marijuana."

Last year, the school reported 51 drug cases.

17-year-old MacharnieSkalecki is a senior at Palisade High School. She said since marijuana legalization in Colorado she’s seen more of her peers use it.

"I started out as a ninth grader and slowly through the years, the amount of drug use [among] not just acquaintances but even friends has increased," Skalecki said. 

She feels under the new law it’s easier for kids to access pot.

"The rise in teen marijuana use is there because kids feel like it’s not as big of a deal as it used to be," Skalecki said.

District official said they can’t keep students away from drugs if they want to try them, but Haller believes schools can inform young people about the dangers.

"What we are really focusing on is education and having students understand the biological, chemical, physiological, [and] also the social impacts of substance abuse," she said. "And, not from perspective of scared straight, but from a perspective of with any decision you need to know what the consequences and what the realities are."

District 51 recently launched a new program for first and second time student drug offenders.

The program sends students to an offsite campus where they spend five days learning how drugs can harm them. And, the kids also meet with counselors to help sort out what is going on in their lives that would lead them to use drugs in the first place.

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