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posted: 9/27/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Truancy, heroin problems are intertwined

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If you read Sunday's paper you may have seen two stories -- one about Naperville's unified attack on heroin use, the other about Kane County's runaway truancy problem.

What do they have in common? They're two sides of the same coin.

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In Kane County the number of kids who are habitually skipping school continues to rise two years after hitting a 10-year high.

"We have almost 2,000 truants in the county," Kane County Regional School Superintendent Pat Dal Santo told staff writer James Fuller. "That's quite a bit. We're at an all-time high there. Yes, it's partly due to the economy, but we've also had our grants cut."

Dal Santo's office used to have eight truancy officers, but cuts in state funding have left her with four. At one point, she had just two. And the officers are supposed to keep an eye on kids at 170 schools.

In Naperville, community leaders were moved to launch an all-out assault on heroin use by young people after the drug claimed seven lives in 2011 and at least five more since.

Staff writer Marie Wilson describes the city's revamped social services grant, which is funding three efforts to spread the word of the dangers of heroin use to all corners of the community:

• $24,000 to create parentsmattertoo.org, which will feature videos from experts about what to do when parents suspect their child is using drugs, create parent conversation circles that will meet at a variety of places around town, and book speakers on various topics.

• $7,000 to fund production of three videos on the physical and mental effects of heroin addiction, understanding adolescent development and helping teens make healthy choices, and how to talk to kids about heroin and other drugs.

• $13,000 for thepowerofchoice.info, which will begin a communications campaign called "Parents Use Your Power." The funding is supporting advertisements that direct parents to the site for drug prevention information.

So, how are these two stories related?

A 2010 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs examined the relationship between truancy and the escalation of substance abuse during adolescence. It determined that truant youths -- in the 14-16 age range -- engaged in more substance abuse than their peers who were in school and that when their truancy escalated, so did their substance abuse.

"Truancy appears to be a robust predictor of substance abuse," the study concluded. "The effect is likely to be, in part, a result of the deleterious effects of reduced school bonding and, in part, a result of the unsupervised, risky time afforded by truancy."

There are two lessons here: that truant officers play a role in keeping kids from making bad choices as well as keeping them in school and that while getting parents involved -- as Naperville is doing -- is important once a problem exists, there is nothing better than strong parental interest and involvement early on to ensure our kids stay away from drugs.

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