A trio of Pasco County high schoolers gathered over the summer to share their perspective on youth drug use, mental health and other issues facing their peers — both on school campuses and in the community at large.
The teen activists — Land O’ Lakes High School’s Jocelyn Meriwether, Fivay High School’s Avery Merta and Gulf High School’s Maddie Horn — are part of a group called Safe Teens Against Drugs, or STAND, in Pasco County.
They have a straightforward mission: To end youth substance abuse in the area by educating teachers, law enforcement, business owners and other community members.
They do this by sharing their observations and by suggesting solutions.
The youth group is facilitated by the Pasco County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (Pasco ASAP), which arranged a virtual panel discussion.
“The mission of STAND is to really empower youth to be agents of change, by strengthening their voices,” Pasco ASAP’s coalition coordinator Kellie Rodriguez said, during the session.
Incorporating adolescent voices in the discussion is critical, she said.
Drug use in schools
The teens’ testimonies of what’s happening within their respective public schools were revealing for health service providers and other stakeholders. That was particularly true regarding the pervasiveness and accessibility of drugs.
Merta asserted students at Fivay High have access to all types of illicit substances — including cocaine, Percocet and LSD.
“A lot of kids get their hands on things they shouldn’t have,” the 17-year-old junior said. “There’s people getting hands on literally everything at my school.”
Horn said marijuana vapes and edibles are an issue at Gulf High School, and beyond.
The 15-year-old sophomore shared a story about a classmate openly selling marijuana-laced brownies to other students in one of her art classes last year.
“It was just wild to see,” Horn said. The sale was out in the open, but because it was a brownie, the teacher wasn’t suspicious.
The prevalence of marijuana vaping is concerning, too, she said.
Horn said these so-called weed pens have been found to have higher concentrations of THC — tetrahydrocannabinol — the main active ingredient of cannabis.
The troubling trend hits close to home for Horn, whose cousin became addicted to the weed pens and experienced withdrawal symptoms.
It was hard to watch, Horn said.
Smoking marijuana remains “one of the biggest drug-related issues” in schools, according to Meriwether, a high school junior and STAND Pasco president.
She said some Land O’ Lakes High students have strategically teamed up to visit different school restrooms simultaneously so if one gets caught, not all of the drugs are confiscated.
Offending students, however, rarely ever were discovered and punished, Meriwether observed.
“Getting caught was not common,” she said.
More school accountability needed
The students also pointed to the need for adults in the Pasco County school district to play a more active role in curbing illicit drug use.
More teachers need to routinely check school restrooms between passing periods “to make sure no one’s doing (anything),” Merta suggested.
Meriweather and Horn said teachers need to listen to what students are saying and pay attention to what they are doing.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve been in class and students are like talking very loudly about what they’re about to go do in the bathrooms…and our teachers just kind of overlook it, or kind of don’t react or don’t say anything,” Meriweather said.
She said teachers and other adults should step in and say: “Hey, I hear what you’re talking about. Let’s not do that, you know.’”
More empathy for teens needed
Another major complaint the panelists expressed centered on the general lack of empathy from teachers, guidance counselors and other school-support staff when students experience a panic attack or other mental health episode.
“A lot of times, I’ll be having a panic attack and our teachers will be like, ‘Oh, you need to get back to work, you need to stop doing that,’” Horn said. “It’s really discouraging because I’m going through something and I have these really big emotions and big thoughts, and sometimes I can’t handle (them) on my own.”
Merta agreed: “Most of the teachers actually cause more anxiety by pressuring you into doing something.”
Merta explained — a student can be experiencing some type of anxiety, and instead of helping, the reaction might be: “Do your work. Do this. Do that.’”
Although the counselor at his school is supportive, Merta said, the counselor simply can’t devote enough time to students.
“You can only talk for like 10 to 15 minutes, so it’s not really something that’s worth it,” Merta explained.
Meriwether said it can take more than two weeks to get in to see a guidance counselor at Land O’ Lakes High School.
That’s not helpful during the middle of a panic attack, she said.
Pasco County Commissioner Christina Fitzpatrick chimed in, too.
She agreed with the panel that students need to have easy access to counselors.
“Yeah, they might be working on a specific topic right then, but they should be able to stop what they’re doing and help address a student, because a student is priority,” Fitzpatrick said.
She recommends that teachers be given mental health and anxiety de-escalation training.
Some positive steps forward
Students said they have seen progress, both at school and in the community.
Fivay has installed smoke detectors that can locate vapes, Merta said.
The school district also is instituting human trafficking educational programming at the end of each school year, Merta said.
Meriwether commended the positive presence of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office’s in schools and in the community. Deputies routinely ask how they can help better serve the area, the teen said.
Horn appreciates the welcoming attitude that Pasco County Schools has toward groups such as STAND.
The group has been invited to elementary and middle schools where information is shared on an array of topics, she said.
The plan to use COVID-19 relief funds to bring on 27 mental health counselors is a good step, Horn said.
To find out more about these issues or STAND, visit EmpoweredCommunities.org, or email .
Published September 22, 2021