When Marge Johnson talks about teenage brains, she uses her hands a lot.
“They’re like mush, pliable,” she said, as if she was squeezing a foam ball. It’s her way of explaining why teens do things they can’t even explain.
“The thing is,” she told about 20 parents at Winman Junior High School Tuesday night, “they really don’t know why they did it.”
The brain, which doesn’t fully develop until about the age of 25, is the path Johnson chose to talk about the use of drugs in Warwick schools and what parents should do.
Johnson, along with Nelson Carreiro, school police resource officer for the city’s three junior high schools, and Toll Gate Resource Officer William Castaldi, detailed what drugs teens are experimenting with – largely prescription drugs and marijuana – in the first of a series of three community meetings designed to inform parents. Additional sessions will be held in March for parents in the districts served by Gorton and Vets and Aldrich and Pilgrim, although parents throughout the city are welcome to attend.
Johnson taught science in Warwick schools for about 30 years. After leaving teaching, she found she still wanted to be with kids and went to work for the Rhode Island Student Assistance Services (RISAS). Warwick Schools contracts with RISAS to provide counselors for the city’s three junior and senior high schools. Johnson is the Winman counselor, where she works Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
She makes it clear she’s there to help them. She wants to hear student’s problems; what is shared between them stays between them, even if they are using drugs.
While drug use in high school is more prevalent than junior high, Johnson said the critical grades, where patterns get formed and brain development can be impaired, are between 8th and 10th grade.
Because teens aren’t always good at making choices, Johnson said they are more at risk to experiment with and become addicted to drugs. Her advice to parents is to provide firm guidance, be a positive role model and monitor what they are doing. She urged parents to find ways to stay connected and never assume that because they have been told something once, that’s all that is needed.
“As a parent, you have to repeat the message a thousand times and then repeat it another thousand times,” she said.
It was a message echoed by Carreiro and Castaldi.
Carreiro advised parents to be sensitive to change in their children and even monitor over-the-counter drug use.
“Administer meds yourself, don’t leave it to the teens,” he said, disclosing how teens were mixing Tylenol with alcohol and taking as many as 20 aspirins at a time and downing bottles of cough syrup.
“They’re talking in a language you don’t event understand. You have to educate yourself,” said Castaldi.
He urged parents to turn to the Internet to learn what teens are into and he warned how efforts to clamp down on the illegal use of prescription drugs has resulted in the increased use of heroin. He also spoke about how legal substances that have been found to produce highs are being sold in smoke shops and even some convenience stores. He also mentioned Internet sales.
Johnson said alcohol continues to be used by students, although that has declined slightly. A survey conducted in Warwick schools found 43 percent of 12th graders had drunk an alcoholic beverage in the last 30 days.
Both police and Johnson see an increase in marijuana use that they attribute to its legalization for medical use and growing acceptance that it is not dangerous.
“The perceptions are wrong,” said Johnson.
She said marijuana can be addictive, can delay brain development and increases the risk of depression for some young people.
“Marijuana is a dangerous addictive drug,” she said. “It takes down their motivation more than anything else.”
Carreiro urged parents to dispose of prescription drugs that they no longer need and to take an inventory of what they have.
“It’s really what’s in your [medicine] cabinets,” he said.
He also spoke of the effectiveness of efforts to stop people from getting prescriptions filled on multiple occasions.
“The problem never went away. It just got shifted to a stronger and cheaper opiate, which is heroin,” he said.
And Carreiro talked of the Good Samaritan law that grants immunity to prosecution for those calling in emergency cases where a drug user needs medical attention. Since the law’s enactment, he said Warwick police have responded to several situations where they have been able to help before it’s too late.
“We’re looking to save a life,” he said.