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posted: 2/12/2012 5:30 AM

Officials: Stevenson's drug problems universal

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The scope of a drug sale investigation at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire last week drew intense public interest.

But at the end of it, the charging of only two students and recovery of less than 10 grams of marijuana revealed a problem that was entirely typical of all high schools throughout the suburbs, police and school officials said.

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"That kind of thing probably goes on in every high school in America," Barrington Police Chief Jerry Libit said. "We've certainly had our share of kids using pot or buying pot or selling pot. It's a horrible situation when it happens in the high school. That's why they have enhanced penalties for it and everything."

Barrington High School Principal Steve McWilliams agreed it's a most serious matter when drugs invade the safety of the school environment.

"We will go to whatever degree the law will allow to address transactions on school property," McWilliams said. "I know that it's happened, but it doesn't happen very often. (Drugs have) been an issue at high schools since high schools were opened. We just have to help educate students to make good decisions."

In the Stevenson case, students' cellphone texts showed marijuana transactions were being arranged during the school day. But the actual exchanges took place off school property, investigators said.

According to an annually updated University of Michigan drug survey, daily or near-daily use of marijuana among teens is currently at the highest level since 1981.

The trend has been increasing for about five years, in sync with a decline in the perception of the drug's risk, according to the survey. Researchers speculated that this could be related to the increase in public discussion about the use of medical marijuana.

The survey results showed that near-daily use of marijuana nationwide now stands at 1.3 percent among eighth-graders, 3.6 percent among high school sophomores and 6.6 percent among high school seniors. That means about 1 in 15 seniors today smokes marijuana almost daily.

That statistic is not a surprise to local educators or law enforcement officers.

"Marijuana has become extremely common and prevalent among teens," Elgin police Sgt. Dan O'Shea said. "Weed is probably easier for kids to get than cigarettes. We're never going to win the weed war. Never."

That's why he and others said education is the most useful weapon in that war. And why he believes there is no such thing as a student being "over-involved" in athletics or other school activities.

"Parenting is the first and last line of defense," O'Shea said. "When teenagers are bored, they're going to find something to do."

Chris Sullivan is master sergeant of the North Central Narcotics Task Force, organized by the Illinois State Police to reinforce drug education and enforcement efforts in Kane and McHenry counties.

"If we were an enforcement agency only, we wouldn't be serving our community," Sullivan said.

Though the long-running Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs are on the wane, Sullivan said efforts must be maintained to inform young people of the risks of gateway drugs like marijuana and harder drugs like heroin. Both marijuana and heroin are rising in popularity, the latter having lost its old stigma as a "dirty drug" because it's no longer used exclusively through injection with needles.

Sullivan, who previously worked in Lake County, said in no way has the perceived affluence of the Stevenson High School community made the level of teen drug use there different from elsewhere.

And McWilliams said he doesn't believe the relative affluence of the Barrington High School community has had much impact on the level of drug use among its student body either, based on his conversations with other principals in the Northwest suburbs.

Drug-sniffing dogs make random checks at the school about eight to 10 times per year, which seems to be doing its job as a deterrent, McWilliams said. Drugs are usually found in only one or two searches a year.

But he agreed that a balance between enforcement and education is the key for schools, police and especially parents.

"Raising a teenager -- to raise a son or daughter of any age, in fact -- is not easy," McWilliams said. "It takes a lot of energy, a lot of knowledge."

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