Each summer, a panel of Pasco County teenagers share their perspectives on substance abuse and other problems facing youths, both in the community and in the school system.
Typically, the event is held at the community center at Land O’ Lakes Heritage Park.
But, this time, panelists shared their insights again in a July 28 forum held virtually, in light of COVID-19.
The new format didn’t affect the substance: The panelists — who make up Safe Teens Against Drugs (STAND) — still got their points across.
The forum was arranged by the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP). This the fifth year that STAND members addressed numerous community stakeholder groups.
They shared their views on various health and safety issues facing Pasco youths.
The group of youth leaders who make up STAND are working to end youth substance abuse in Pasco County by sharing their observations and knowledge with teachers, police, business owners and other community members.
Besides helping to build understanding, they also suggest solutions.
During the hour-long online discussion, STAND speakers warned that vaping, or the use of e-cigarettes, is a growing problem among youth countywide.
Anclote High School student Iker Dorta went so far as to label it “the biggest drug-related issue” in local high schools and middle schools.
Besides vaping nicotine, kids also vape THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana), and other illicit substances that can be smoked, he said.
Iker noted that vaping has become more popular among teens because it’s “easy to hide in your pocket and go to the bathroom and use it.”
Fellow STAND members agreed.
“Vaping is a huge problem in schools and such,” said Chasco Middle School student Alyssa Saldana. “I’ve had some of my friends tell me that one of their older friends offered them a vape, so it’s definitely a big problem that we need to start looking at more.”
Maddie Horn underscored the issue by recalling an incident during a Chasco Middle School pep rally when a student was caught vaping.
“I think it’s a very common thing that’s happening in all our schools,” said Horn, a rising freshman at Gulf High School.
Many teens get roped into substance use through peer pressure and they use substances to become popular, Horn said.
“It’s very much a popularity thing. So, like if one person does it and they become popular, everyone else will want to do it because they want that ‘fame’ in the school,” Horn said.
Besides vaping, marijuana use continues to be “a big issue,” said Land O’ Lakes High School student Jocelyn Meriwether.
“We have a lot of kids who think it’s a cool thing to do, and you have to, like, join the club of high school that way, through smoking weed in bathrooms and trying not to get caught.”
Greater focus needed on mental health
Using substances to become more popular is just one issue, panelists said.
Youths also turn to substances as a way to escape from dysfunctional home life, or to cope with inner feelings, they said.
They urged an increase in mental health services.
“Mental health is the key to everything right now,” Dorta said. “For a 15- or 16-year-old to go through trauma and leave it unchecked…really impales society as a whole, because that’s what’s going to make up our next generation as a whole, so the very next step before overcoming drugs and vaping, first, is taking hold of our minds.”
Panelists said that mental health must be taken more seriously by the Pasco County Schools — from guidance counselors to teachers and administrators.
They advocate greater funding for staffing at schools to give students quick access to help, when they need to talk to someone about their problems.
As it stands now, instead of an open door policy, a student must make an appointment of sorts by placing a notecard in a counselor’s mailbox, Meriwether said.
“They’ll get to you when they get to you,” she said.
That can be problematic, she added.
“Some kids can’t wait. They need to talk and if they don’t have someone to talk to they’re going to go to drugs and skip over using their resources.
“We have those situations where we want to talk to somebody about this, but no one’s available,” Meriwether said.
Piggybacking off that thought, Horn mentioned some counselors won’t take a particular student’s mental health issues seriously. Instead, they write it off as teen angst.
Other times, she said, counselors just focus on a student’s grades — instead of talking to them about what has been bothering them at school, or outside of it.
Horn put it all like this: “Let’s say you’re being bullied. Like, you’ll go in talking about that issue, but then they’ll change to subject to, ‘Oh, how are your grades doing?’”
That, she added, “doesn’t make the bullying situation or whatever your situation is, any better.
“I don’t think there are enough people in our schools to help us going through our issues. Like the teachers say they can help, but they can only help when it’s convenient for them,” Horn said.
COVID-19’s far-reaching impacts
The unintended consequences of COVID-19 on school-age youth was another deep talking point among panelists.
With a lack of school structure, boredom at home and few extracurricular or athletic activities available — because of the pandemic — panelists said they’re not surprised if fellow teens are currently experimenting with new substances, or abusing them more frequently than they did before the pandemic hit.
Meriwether observed: “Kids now are at home and don’t have a lot to lose, so they’re trying new things. Parents will have stuff at home that kids can just get into, because it’s not being locked up, because everyone’s home all day.”
Safer-at-home orders also have allowed youth to hide side effects that otherwise might’ve been caught if they were in school or school-related activities, she added.
Because of that and other reasons, panelists generally seemed in favor of having some sort of option to return to brick-and-mortar schools.
Horn summed it up like this: “I get a little depressed because I’m not able to go and see my friends, and school was something I enjoyed. It’s very isolating to do online school for such a long time when you don’t have groups to attend and you don’t make friends outside of online school, so like I found peace in going to school. Like, the fact that I can’t go to school is very sad, because I like going to school, I like being around other people and seeing new faces, and it’s just easier to learn.”
Dorta, meantime, expressed worry for youth who’ve had to handle online learning in the face of troubling home or family environments.
Traditional schooling usually offers “a dip from harsh reality” for those kids,” he said.
“You can’t push online school onto a lot of people, especially when those kids have trouble at home. …Imagine if you’re bringing school to their house, which they can’t even feel safe or concentrate in,” he said.
Dorta wants to see schools reopen. But, he added: “Seeing how (COVID-19) is going on, I don’t know how it’d work and I don’t really know if it’s the best option, but knowing a lot of kids that are struggling, at least have them refer to a source that they can go to outside of their house.”
Others, including Gulf Middle School’s Yahkaira Barbosa, expressed hesitation about returning to school at the moment.
“I’m dying to go back to school, but the way things are, it’s probably best not to because it’s going to be awhile until a vaccine comes out,” Barbosa said.
Safe Teens Against Drugs (STAND) is a program facilitated by the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP).
STAND members include Iker Dorta, Anclote High School; Alyssa Saldana, Chasco Middle School; Jocelyn Meriwether, Land O’ Lakes High School; Maddie Horn, Gulf High School; Jakob Horn, Bayonet Point Middle School; Billy Kritsotakis, Harry Schwettmann Education Center; Joel Meriwether, Sunlake High School; Jeromy Vaughn, Gulf Middle School; Austin Vaughn, Chasco Middle School; and Cheyenne Howard, of Dade City.
STAND’s mission is to:
- Change youth perspectives of drugs
- Reduce accessibility of drugs
- Reduce marketing of drugs to young people
- Create an environment where young people in recovery can thrive
To learn more about STAND, contact ">.
Published August 19, 2020