St. Johns County has some of the highest drug/alcohol usage ratings among youths in the state, according to the 2016 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, and local organizations are working hard to combat the issue.
Chuck Mulligan, community affairs bureau commander for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office (SJSO), confirmed that the county (including Ponte Vedra) is dealing with this problem among youths.
“Certainly with tobacco products and alcohol, those are the majority of substances most likely to be consumed by our youth,” he said. “From there, some of those individuals will become involved with marijuana, and others will be involved with more harsh substances, such as cocaine or pain pills or designer drugs.”
St. Johns County’s 2016 annual report revealed that (breakout box):
· 54 percent of high school students have consumed alcohol.
· 20 percent have “blacked out.”
· 32 percent have smoked marijuana.
· 5 percent have used LSD, PSP or mushrooms.
· 35 percent admitted to having used an illicit drug.
· 17 percent admitted to having used an illicit drug other than marijuana.
· 59 percent said they’ve used alcohol or any illicit drug.
Mulligan asserted that substance abuse is a problem affecting St. Johns and other counties across the nation. He contended that any survey relying on the honesty of the survey taker can produce skewed results, which means the problem might be worse than the general public perceives.
“With any survey where you're asking individuals who understand that the questions are being asked, it implicates them in some type of illegal activity,” he said. “Even if it’s minor, some of them are not going to be honest. Some of these kids are going to be absolutely honest while others (are) in fear … that somehow that information may get out, they fear reprisals, so with any of those surveys, there’s always some level of plus or minus with regard to the actual statistics.”
SJSO works directly with youths in the county, Mulligan said, to help them understand that drinking, smoking and using drugs can negatively impact the trajectory of their lives. The office has created a booklet entitled “Know the Law,” which is a compilation of the laws youths often break and need to understand.
“The school board also has programs on their side,” Mulligan said. “But we, being in the schools, produce this booklet, and we hope the booklet is a conversation starter for parents; some of them don't know what's going on out there in the streets. A lot of the time the parents don't know what to look for.”
Additionally, youth resource deputies educate students on drug/alcohol abuse and allow them to ask questions, said Mulligan.
If prevention doesn’t work, SJSO deputies will punish youths when they’re caught with illegal substances. Depending on the severity of the situation, SJSO can file criminal charges, but Mulligan said the department tries to avoid arresting young people whenever possible. Instead, deputies give eligible youths a civil citation.
“In that case, they don't get a criminal charge,” Mulligan explained. “But it mandates that they're with us for a certain period of time where we have an opportunity to talk with them, work with them and cause them to seek counseling if we think that's necessary.”
Mulligan said that deputies work directly with students who’ve been handed a civil citation, and their parents, to help them avoid the same mistake in the future.
PACT Prevention Coalition
SJSO isn’t the only entity working to keep youths away from drugs and alcohol in St. Johns County. PACT Prevention Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses on preventing and reducing underage substance abuse in the county, is also working to address the situation.
Denver Cook, the chairman of the nonprofit, echoed Mulligan’s sentiments and said that Ponte Vedra in particular has a worsening substance abuse issue.
"Knowing what's going on with our opioid crisis … and youths offending with alcohol and drugs and having to be sent to court ordered referral treatment,” he said, “there's a rise in Ponte Vedra and everywhere in these behaviors.”
Cook said the prevalence of alcohol usage is greater than marijuana and opioids, but all three are a problem.
“At least once a week I have a parent relay to me a story about one of their middle schoolers or high schoolers who have heard or been part of an incident related to drugs or alcohol in the Nocatee/Ponte Vedra area,” he said. “So, it's happening, it's in our schools, it's in our communities."
There's a greater risk of kids becoming involved with drugs and alcohol in wealthier areas, Cook said, because parents in affluent neighborhoods believe a substance abuse habit would never ensnare their own children.
Consequently, Cook noted that the problem can impact all communities and schools, including Creekside High School in St. Johns, where he said a student overdosed in August 2017 on marijuana that was laced with fentanyl.
"The kids didn't know what to do so they dropped her off in the woods outside her community," he said. "These are not poor people; Creekside High School is not Downtown Duval."
In Ponte Vedra Beach, PACT is working with Ocean Palms Elementary School fourth-and fifth-graders to help guide them away from illegal substances. According to Cook, PACT’s "Natural High" program helps St. Johns County kids refrain from using drugs by showing students they can find a “natural high” from other, more productive behaviors.
Additionally, Cook said PACT will be working with youth athletes in St. Johns County.
“We're going to be presenting to all the athletic clubs in St. Johns County about the challenge of drug addiction,” he said, “and start making that a part of the conversation on a regular basis with the athletic league."
At the time of the Recorder’s conversation with Cook, he said PACT plans on organizing a town hall with doctors to educate parents in Northeast Florida about the danger of prescription drug abuse.
St. Johns County schools are also responding to the problem. Tim Forson, the superintendent of the St. Johns County School District, said local schools are partnering with various organizations and educating students in the classroom on the consequences of drug/alcohol use.
Forson said he met with the sheriff’s office to increase awareness and develop a strategy to curb the rate of substance abuse among youths. Furthermore, the school district has participated in various educational programs and partnered with Epic Behavioral Healthcare in St. Augustine, Forson added.
“We partner with the PACT program and other organizations and groups to provide educational opportunities for students and bring awareness of the risk of the behavior of drug use and alcohol use at a young age," Forson said. "I've actually been president of PACT Coalition at one point in time and served on that board for a number of years so whether it's house parties or just reminding students before prom and before big events, I think there are things we can do.”