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Marijuana use climbs among high schoolers

By JASON MORROWjmorrow@paducahsun.com

A report from the Kentucky Center for School Safety has named marijuana use and possession as the top law violation among students in Kentucky for the 2015-16 school year.

The data report, which was released earlier this month, showed there were 6,995 law violations for the school year, and marijuana accounted for 26 percent of them. 

On the positive side, alcohol use and possession decreased by 26 percent, the report said.  

The most common offenders were ninth graders. According to the report, "This key transition year is also reported as troublesome in studies of retention, failed subjects and attendance."

Brian Bowling, director of pupil personnel for McCracken County Public Schools, said no matter what school district a student lives in, freshman year is a difficult time period for students. 

"You will probably see a greater amount of retention in the freshman class than other grades because that’s the first time a student truly faces credits to advance into the next grade," Bowling said. 

The report stated that across Kentucky, ninth graders made up 23 percent of student violators. Among them, freshmen had 413 instances of marijuana possession and use, and there were 26 cases of marijuana distribution. 

According to Ellen Walsh, director of the Regional Prevention Center at Four Rivers Behavioral Health, a lack of "school connectedness" could play a key part in freshmen taking the top slot in law violations.

"Middle schools are usually a lot smaller than high schools," she said. "If (students) don't feel connected to their school, if they don't participate in some kind of activities, they're at a much higher risk."

Walsh noted many factors come into play when determining why so many law violations, particularly for drug use, come from freshmen. She said most students have already made up their mind about drugs by the time their freshman year arrives. 

The Regional Prevention Center goes into freshmen health classes every year to talk about the negative effects of drug use, but Walsh said by that time it's often too late.

"We have some kids that will argue with us that it is OK to smoke marijuana and that it is not harmful," Walsh said. "There's usually a couple in every class that are just adamant; it doesn't matter what we say."

Walsh said the best time to start prevention classes is in elementary school. 

Without getting into specifics, the report stated that the McCracken County district had 55 law violations among the 6,581 students during the 2015-16 school year, down from 57 violations the year before.

Bowling said there are a lot of factors involved in keeping students accountable, such as school resource officers and procedures put into place by administration.

"It’s a testament to our principals establishing quality procedures in terms of supervision in the hallways," Bowling said.

"Everywhere a student turns, supervision is there. I think that our students kind of begin to understand and know that (law violations) are not going to be tolerated in our schools, and we’re going to take the necessary steps to protect everyone involved."

Paducah Public Schools had 34 law violations among 2,853 students in 2015-16 throughout the district, up from 31 the previous year.

Troy Brock, director of pupil personnel for Paducah Public Schools, said data can be useful for knowing what to look for in prevention, but it must be observed carefully.  

Brock agrees that the data show law violations gradually go up until the ninth grade before dropping for a student's senior and junior year, making early intervention important.

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