February 15, 2014

Lowcountry school battles prescription drug use

The Hilton Head Island High School student wasn't breathing, and the school nurse couldn't find a pulse.

The Hilton Head Island High School student wasn't breathing, and the school nurse couldn't find a pulse.

Principal Amanda O'Nan sent a staff member for the defibrillator, hoping it could revive the student who had fallen unconscious after a Xanax overdose.

"I want to go over the feeling of what it's like when you see a student go down and it's one of you, and you hear your nurse call out, 'I can't find a pulse, they're not breathing,' " O'Nan said Friday morning during an assembly of the school's freshmen and seniors. She met with sophomores and juniors later in the day.

"What it's like to watch a student lifeless, to wait for the ambulance for what seems like minutes after minutes when it's really only seconds, to watch a student helpless," she said. "As a principal, what am I going to say to the mother when I have to tell her, 'I think we've lost a student'? All because of Xanax usage."

In recent weeks, the high school has found that some students are taking a combination of Xanax, a prescription narcotic used to manage anxiety, and Coricidin, an over-the-counter cold-and-cough medicine. Paramedics have been called to the campus several times.

The school is taking a head-on approach to the problem, O'Nan said. Beyond meeting with the student body, the school has enlisted the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office to help get to the root of the problem.

The Sheriff's Office Drug Investigations Team is trying to find out where students are getting the drugs, Sheriff P.J. Tanner said Thursday.

"Normally, when you see a new concoction of drugs like this used as a mixture -- in this case cough medicine and Xanax as a combo -- this kind of thing is trendy," he said. "We want to make sure we have a thorough understanding of what the problem is and how deep it goes."

The investigation is only a week old but already has identified several possible suppliers, Tanner said. He expects that list to grow.

The Sheriff's Office also has identified some students it believes to be users, but Tanner declined to provide a specific number.

"I don't think a number should be attached to it because if it's low, then people don't think it's serious, and if it's high, then people think it's an epidemic," he said. "We're comfortable with the numbers we're looking at currently. We're not overly concerned as of right now."

Since Jan. 22, eight drug-related incidents resulted in disciplinary action at the school, O'Nan said. This week was the first in several that the school did not have to call the paramedics or take disciplinary action related to drugs, she added.

"My tactic is to be very transparent in addressing this and not sweep it under the rug, so I feel the heightened awareness has already started to help change the culture," O'Nan said. "I think people are starting to see the magnitude of the issues so there is less pushback and more emphasis on how we can fix this."

As part of its investigation, the Sheriff's Office is looking into whether the drug combo is being used at other district high schools. So far, that has not been the case, Tanner said.

"Normally, when you find issues like this, it is not isolated to one particular school," Tanner said. "So we are looking at it as a countywide issue to make sure we aren't overlooking similar problems at other high schools or that it doesn't bleed into the middle school."

Superintendent Jeff Moss also said he's seen no reports of similar problems at other schools.

He said the Hilton Head situation might lead to conversations about random drug testing of students involved in extracurricular activities. Moss had such a policy in other districts where he worked and said it was effective, despite initial outcry from parents.

"We are going to continue to have those conversations in the student-services department," he said.

Several students said the straight talk about the situation is helping them understand the health and legal consequences of having and taking the drugs.

Senior Victor Jimenez said learning that several of his peers almost died from taking the drugs "opened a lot of our eyes," he said.

The problem also seems to cross all grades and involve many different groups of students, senior Olivia Joslin said Friday.

Students are afraid to provide information or be the "snitch" and turn their friends in, she said, "but being a 'snitch' in this situation could save a life."

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