Event held in Towanda for Red Ribbon Week

Fourteen.

That's the number of lives lost in Bradford County so far this year due to substance abuse-related causes, according to county coroner Thomas Carman, who facilitated Monday's community awareness forum at Towanda Area High School.

Last year, Bradford County lost 37 lives for the same reason, he said - lives that could, right now, be working, attending school, spending time with their families and serving as productive citizens.

"To me, that is quite a statement," Carman said. "Every year, it seems like we have many premature deaths."

Carman was joined Monday by a panel of local experts, each highlighting different ways the community can work together to reduce that figure.

Through education and communication, less people will fall victim to deaths, incarcerations, arrests and other far-reaching consequences related to drug and alcohol abuse, Carman said, encouraging the audience at Monday's event to share what they'd learned with others. When it comes to addiction problems, "none of us is immune," Carman said.

"Realistically, we're not going to stop drugs," Carman said. However, every action people take to spread information and help others is "a small, positive building block" toward rehabilitation, he said.

Experts emphasized the importance of reaching youth and young adults. And while data suggests alcohol use among teens in the area has decreased, it's still prevalent among middle and high school students.

According to surveys administered to county high school students in 2011, the last year data was available, 43.3 percent of middle and high school students had tried alcohol, down from 57 percent in 2007.

In 2011, 31.5 percent of 12th graders had tried marijuana, with 17.4 percent having had used it in the 30 days prior to taking the survey. 47.6 percent had tried cigarettes in 2011, with 20 percent in the past 30 days.

The forum focused on the medical, social and legal ramifications of drug use, particularly for youth and young adults.

In addition to ill health, teens who turn to drugs and alcohol can also set off a chain of negative consequences with the poor decisions they make while under the influence, said Peggy Wesneski, a registered nurse and former operator of the Evergreen Halfway House in Leroy.

Humans' brains continue to form until one's mid-20s, Wesneski said, and regular drug and alcohol use before that development is complete could disrupt brain function.

Interventions are a necessary tool to direct those grappling with substance abuse on a more positive path, Wesneski said. Even then, addiction is a disease that requires lifelong management.

"If you're addicted, it doesn't get cured," she said.

Juvenile probation officer Justin Popovich offered insight into the legal consequences youth offenders face when convicted of drug- or alcohol-related offenses. "We do not treat drug offenses lightly," Popovich said.

Consequences for juvenile alcohol and drug offenders include probation, community service, electronic monitoring, curfew, random drug screens and counseling. In extreme cases, offenders would be placed in a residential treatment facility or secured facility, which are mostly several hours away from Bradford County.

A criminal record may also impact one's chances at employment or college acceptance, Popovich said.

Even so, the juvenile justice system attempts to help offenders develop the skills to succeed at school and in life and to keep them out of the system, he said.

Many of Monday's speakers echoed the sentiment that family support is critical to keeping youth from substance abuse.

Towanda Borough Police Department chief Randy Epler encouraged parents to look out for drastic changes in their children's sleeping habits, friend groups and other behaviors.

Epler also suggested parents keep their prescription drugs under lock and key, as easy access contributes to their abuse, and to keep an eye out for possible drug paraphernalia items in their children's bedrooms. Parents should watch for needles, gum wrapper-sized shreds of aluminum foil, cotton balls, small baggies and bread wrapper ties.

"With awareness comes prevention," Epler said. "You can cut it off quickly."

Danielle Gorman, the county's victim witness coordinator, recommended encouraging good decisions. "Catch and reward the good things, and the bad things become less appealing, less tempting," she said.

Gorman also suggested ensuring children are surrounded with positive influences, including teachers, mentors, friends, youth group leaders and relatives.

Schools also offer several programs to keep their students on the right path, said Bryan Bechdel, assistant principal at Towanda Area High School.

While children value support and parental interest in their lives, schools also provide peer mentoring programs, co-curricular activities, and education in health, wellness, leadership and character building, Bechdel said.

Guidance counselors also work with students and can refer them to outside agencies that would meet their needs, according to Bechdel. "We're always looking for a better way to help students," he said.

The Communities That Care Coalition of Bradford County sponsored the forum, part of its Red Ribbon Week to bring awareness to the issue of substance abuse. The coalition asks that people wear red today in support of a drug-free community.

Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: arenko@thedailyreview.com.