Luis C--rdoba, a doctor of education with police experience, and Kathy Julio, an individual and family counselor, run Cambio Connections in the Kansas City area. They gave presentations in English and Spanish to separate groups at Monett Middle School at the invitation of Asociaci--n Latina "Imagen."
According to a survey by the National Institute of Drugs, 78 percent of teens admit to having used alcohol, and 60 percent said they had used marijuana, cocaine, stimulants and pain killers. As many as 15 percent of teens could be classified as substance abusers. One out of five high school seniors said they smoked regularly.
C--rdoba said rural teens are likely to gather in remote locations or on back roads to sample substances that could give them an altered state of consciousness. Children from families with no problems may pick up practices with inappropriate substances from their peers, he said.
"My son and his peers talked about using meth and alcohol," C--rdoba said. "I almost lost my son from his decisions, not mine."
One of the bigger problems at the present time in the Kansas City area is teens using synthetic drugs, called "vanilla" in Spanish, said Julio. The drug is available under the counter at many businesses. Simulating a marijuana high, the powerful chemical,, also known as K2, actually induces symptoms of heroin withdrawal on its users. Julio had one young client who thought he was having a heart attack while trying to stay off the drug.
"Kids know more than we do about these drugs," C--rdoba said.
Abusing prescription drugs found in the family medicine cabinet is the most common problem at the present time. The drugs are crushed and snorted, and are highly addictive, C--rdoba warned. Inhalants have become second only to alcohol as the intoxicant of choice for 12-year-olds.
The physical signs of drug abuse are important for parents to recognize.
Abusers of inhalants will spray paint into plastic bags then breathe in the contents, often leaving paint smudges on the hands and lips. Eyeball pupils enlarged or pinpoint sized, or eyes that jump involuntarily when tracking a straight line often indicate drug use.
Users of marijuana will smoke the cigarettes down to the bottom and may end up with burned fingers or use alligator clips. Oxycontin users snort the white powder, leaving residue, and may suddenly have nasal inhalants around to flush the evidence from their noses.
"Drug use is particularly dangerous for teens because their brains are still growing," Julio said. "Stimulants can be especially damaging in ways that do not show up in adults."
Julio urged parents to look for changes in behavior as a sign of abuse, such as withdrawal, a lack of interest or new friends. She encouraged parents to see what is in children's rooms, such as posters about subcultures and drug use. If necessary, Julio said parents may have to take the doors off their children's rooms to cut off the secrecy that allows abuse. Over-the-counter drug tests are now available.
C--rdoba and Julio endorsed relying on authorities to step in and deliver consequences if abuse by teens continued. In a situation where teens were bullying their parents and grandparents, they said a hotline call to Social Services may be needed to trigger an outside intervention.
"There are things we can do as a community," C--rdoba said.
Gang activity often results from an outsider planting a seed, setting up an alternative "family" where some teens seeking attention can find a sense of belonging.
"The Monett community may say, 'we don't have gangs here.' Kansas City said the same thing in the 1980s," C--rdoba said. "Springfield is a larger community that now has clashes with gangs."
Like drug use, there are distinct symptoms of gang activity. C--rdoba urged parents to watch for skipping school, a sudden drop in grades, a use of nicknames and a change in vocabulary to using more slang. When teens cannot account for their time away from home, parents should take notice.
Apparel is another way gang members or want-to-bes identify themselves, or show loyalty. C--rdoba said baggy clothes, girls wearing heavy makeup and especially black lipstick, shaving eyebrows or hair and wearing baseball caps backwards may reflect the subculture of a gang.
Photos of others in the gang showing hand signs and holding weapons can often be found on cell phones. C--rdoba recommended asking teens what specific symbols mean.
"Gangs are interested in handguns, drugs, criminal behavior and show a lack of respect for the community," C--rdoba said. "Most kids in gangs say they miss their mother and father, while the gang is always there. Get to know who the people are your child is spending time with. You've got to take time for that."
Young people starting gang involvement may do dangerous things to demonstrate loyalty. C--rdoba said every gang member he has seen in counseling has done drugs. The real danger lies in developing a disregard for life.
As an antidote, C--rdoba recommended keeping teens busy with extra-curricular activities, church and responsibilities. Parents have the right to search a child's room, but C--rdoba advised speaking to children respectfully, without making accusations. He encouraged asking for help from teachers and counselors. Threats or rumors should be reported to the police.
"Do it with a sense of unity and community," Julio said. "We're all in this together. My philosophy is if I'm not part of the solution, then I'm part of the problem."