Addressing Student Drug Abuse in Loudoun

Addressing Student Drug Abuse in Loudoun

Student drug use might not be an overwhelming problem in Loudoun County, but it does occur at times and needs to be better addressed, law enforcement and education officials say.

Among the more prevalent drugs abused by some Loudoun students are Xanax and Adderal, said Det. Michael Safford of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office. Xanax, a prescribed drug used to treat anxiety disorders, is sometimes too readily available at home, he said.

Adderal is a “very dangerous drug” prescribed to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which high school and college students sometimes sell on campuses, Det. Safford added. Students can take it to help reduce stress and stay awake to study for tests and work on assignments, but it gets to be addictive, he said.

“Parents have to make sure they lock up their medication and monitor how their children take it if it is prescribed for them,” Det. Safford said during a recent meeting of the Loudoun Education Alliance of Parents [LEAP], a nonpartisan organization of educators and parents.

Other drugs that law enforcement officials confiscate include Vicodin and OxyContin, opioid pain-killers that can also become addictive. The opioid problem is escalated by synthetic drugs like fentanyl, which is many times more stronger than heroin and morphine, Det. Safford said. They are manufactured outside the area and often used to treat cancer, but their abuse can be fatal, he said. The number of deaths, overdoses, and injuries from opioid-related abuse in parts of the region in the first three-quarters of 2017 surpassed those totals for all of 2016, according to federal figures.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Thomas Hickey speaks to Loudoun parents and educators.

Young adults ages 18 through 34 are twice as likely to abuse prescribed opioids than they were a decade ago, according to a recent study by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

While there are various reasons people turn to such drugs, some get addicted after suffering injuries in car accidents or dealing with a family death, said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Thomas Hickey. In some cases, therapy and treatment don’t work and jail has to remain an option, he said. 

“The bottom line is we need to get these people some help,” Agent Hickey said.

Operation Prevention, a program by the DEA and Discovery Education, works to educate students as young as elementary school about prescribed opioid and heroin abuse. The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office also participates in seminars with the school district, including one slated for January 31 on drug abuse at the administration building in Ashburn.

Students attend seminars and presentations in which drug abuse is discussed in various setting starting in middle school, said Jennifer Wall, a supervisor with Loudoun County Public Schools Student Assistance Services. But school officials can only do so much, she said. “Parents need to have conversations with their kids about drugs,” Wall said.

LEAP has lobbied school board members to adopt specific policies on drug abuse, said Stephanie Eskins-Gleason, president of the organization. But it can be a challenging process since many don’t want to admit there is a problem, she said.

Links to gangs?

Drug abuse can be linked to gangs, whose members sell prescribed drugs among the illegal substances, officials said. Students are sometimes tempted to commit burglaries to gain money to support their addiction, Det. Safford said.

More drug arrests are including the confiscation of prescribed drugs among illegal ones, officials said. “Gangs and drugs go hand in hand,” Agent Hickey said.

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office has had a gang unit since 2003.  The gang unit is also involved with the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, which works with federal and state agencies. School resource officers, deputies and officers assigned and stationed within Loudoun public schools, conduct anti-gang education and training programs.

A highly-publicized incident occurred in Leesburg in late 2015, when a man told police he was attacked in the parking lot of an apartment complex by two suspected MS-13 gang members. The attackers reportedly dragged him into nearby woods and stabbed him in the head, neck and hands with a machete-like weapon. The perpetrators were caught and sentenced to ten years in prison.

The number of aggravated assaults in the county jumped by more than 50 percent in 2016 over 2015. While officials attributed that mostly to a change in reporting methodology, they are reviewing the situation.

“Loudoun has one of the lowest crime rates in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan area, but we still want to address any rise in crime and do what we can to lower the crime rate,” Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman said.

Just a few more violent crimes can make area departments seem like they are dealing with a wave. For example, the town of Leesburg reported 15 more aggravated assaults in 2016 over 2015, but the percentage increase was almost 35 percent and often these figures never take into account the increase in population and other factors relevant to a true assessment of crime growth.

“It is important to note that while initially an incident may be classified as an aggravated assault, it can subsequently be downgraded as an assault,” Leesburg Public Information Officer Sam M. Shenouda said.

Law enforcement Officers also participate in many community events, hold regular community meetings and reach out to children through the DARE program.