MANATEE -- Manatee County's drug problem and new national legislation are forcing the school district to take a hard look at drug education.
While Manatee school officials say drug education has improved in the past five years, hard county data shows it isn't working. Drug use among middle and high school students has increased in nearly every instance with the exception of alcohol use between 2010 and 2014, and illicit drug use not including alcohol has more than doubled among middle school students.
School officials say they plan to pursue more programs related to drug prevention education next year, and a newly signed federal law is making those programs mandatory. President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act last week, which includes reforms on substance abuse prevention education. It will provide funds for evidence-based prevention in schools, requiring local educational agencies to use at least 20 percent of student support and academic enrichment grant funding for drug and violence prevention.
In Manatee, however, the use of free drug education programs has actually declined in some schools, particularly in middle schools, says Jane Roseboro, clinical manager of community programs at Centerstone Florida, a mental health and substance abuse treatment facility in Manatee. Several teachers and principals have told Roseboro they don't have time for character-building classes such as drug education since the government is putting so much pressure on testing and academics.
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Centerstone offers to send representatives to any interested schools to teach the course for free, one day a week for 10 weeks, Roseboro said.
"Centerstone goes to every school, and with the shakeups it feels like we have to beg to get into schools," Roseboro said. "We never got into every school, but this year it was particularly bad."
Ryan Saxe, executive director of secondary schools in the Manatee County School District, disagrees, saying drug education in schools has improved in recent years.
"We're doing more in secondary schools now than we were five years ago," Saxe said. "And we're constantly monitoring the effectiveness of our programs."
The state eliminated a program called Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities in 2009, leaving districts with almost no federal funding for drug prevention education. Before that, budget cuts in 2007 eliminated student resource officers from most elementary schools and reduced them in middle schools. That left programs gutted five years ago.
While Saxe and other district officials offered 2014 numbers from a Youth Substance Abuse survey conducted by the Department of Children and Families statewide and in Manatee County, none could quote numbers from five years ago. Comparing those stats from five years ago shows middle and high school students in Manatee County were using more drugs in 2014 than in 2010. Results for 2015 are not available as county-specific numbers are derived in even years.
The survey asks students about drug use over their lifetimes and in the past 30 days, and has five categories:
Any illicit drug;
Any illicit drug other than marijuana;
Alcohol and any illicit drug; and
Any illicit drug, but no alcohol.
Studies differ on the validity of self-reported data, and a study by the Center for Health and Safety Culture said 85 percent of 7,000 surveyed students said they are "very honest" in their responses, but only 14 percent believed their peers would be very honest.
Among middle school students, 4.4 percent of students reported using illicit drugs but no alcohol in their lifetimes in 2010; which more than doubled in 2014 to 9.5 percent. Among high school students, that number increased from 3.9 percent to 4.7 percent.
In 2010, 14.1 percent of middle school students said they used an illicit drug other than marijuana in their lifetimes, which increased slightly, to 14.2 percent in 2014. Among high school students, that number rose from 18.8 percent to 20.2 percent.
Students reported significant decreases in alcohol use, with 22 percent of middle school students reporting they had tried alcohol in 2010 and only 12.7 percent reporting the same in 2014. Among high school students, it decreased from 30.2 percent to 21.3 percent.
Finally, 18.1 percent of middle school students reported using any illicit drug in their lifetimes in 2010, which increased to 20.5 in 2014. That number decreased among high school students, from 38.5 percent to 37.5 percent.
A heroin epidemic has gripped the Manatee County area for more than a year, causing more than 150 overdose deaths in Manatee and Sarasota in 2015 and sparking 1,352 overdose calls to 911 just in Manatee.
Saxe said the school district has applied for a three-year private grant worth about $75,000 to get a Life Skills program in all middle schools starting in the 2016-17 academic year. They also teach It's Your Choice, and partnered with Drug Free Manatee this year to begin the Know the Law program. Florida requires students get some drug education as part of the state-required HOPE class. HOPE, or Health Opportunities through Physical Education, combines physical education and health education. But none of those three has a major focus on drug abuse prevention.
Drug Free Manatee officials said the school district deserves praise for implementing those programs, despite hardships caused by a lack of funding and emphasis on testing and performance on tests.
Centerstone offers the Life Skills program, which also isn't specifically targeted to drug education but teaches children about self-esteem, anger management, peer pressure and how to deal with problems in a positive way. The program is free to the school district.
Saxe said the grant is needed to train teachers rather than bringing in officials from Centerstone. That way, teachers can apply their personal knowledge of their students to the courses, as well as monitor students for signs of drug use and possibly intervene.
"We want our teachers to be able to offer students assistance. They need to be able to recognize the problem to provide personal help to our students," said Mike Barber, school district spokesman. "We don't want to do this just when the lesson is delivered."
Roseboro said teachers and principals have specifically told her they don't have time for the Life Skills program because they need to focus on academics. That's a mistake, she noted, since studies show those classes can also bring up academic performance. And schools with identified at-risk students, who typically have lower grades from the state average, have been particularly difficult to reach.
"I'll hear, 'We can't take away from academics,' or, 'We have a huge standardized test coming up,'" Roseboro said. "They're getting more resistant because they're focusing on getting their letter grades up."
Sharon Kramer, director of Drug Free Manatee, said prevention has a huge return on investment. Every dollar spent on prevention education has the potential to save $18 in costs related to substance abuse in communities, according to a study by Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli.
High school students who report using illicit substances within the last month are twice as likely to report being suspended in the past year, 2 1/2 times more likely to have skipped school in the past month, less likely to do their best in school and more likely to hate school.
"Clearly, the negative correlations between youth substance use in Manatee and desirable performance, attitudes, and behaviors related to school are strong and consistent," Kramer said. "Conversely, reducing youth substance use will improve school-related measurers."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby