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Date of Issue: March 02, 2006

Island reality: Teen drug use

It's not something the Island likes to brag about, and you won't find it mentioned in any tourism brochure.

In the evenings, even on school nights, she'll hang out with her friends at the Manatee Public Beach, walk Gulf Drive with those same friends, or go to another friend's house whose parents aren't home.

There, she and her friends will drink some beer or other alcohol that an older friend has brought or smoke marijuana. On occasion, she'll engage in sexual activities. She could be as young as 12 years old.

At the Anna Maria Island Community Center, Executive Director Pierrette Kelly said she's had teenage girls in the center's counseling program admit to using drugs and alcohol and having sex, including one who was just a 12-year-old.

Kelly should know. She's been overseeing the teen and pre-teen counseling service at the Center since 1993.

Since the program started, Kelly has observed Island teenagers using and abusing drugs and alcohol every year. Some years seem worse than others, but the problem never disappears, she said.

Of the 72 teenagers currently in the counseling program, about 15 have admitted to counselors that they've used drugs and alcohol. "They almost brag about it, while the others won't admit that they've used," said Kelly.

Agreed, added counselor Pam Dale. "I'd say it's more like 50 percent of the kids (in the program) have used drugs."

The Center has nearly 300 teenagers and pre-teens that use its facilities and Dale said it's likely other teens not in the counseling program have used drugs or alcohol.

According to Kelly, the kids say they all have older friends who provide them marijuana or alcohol. If they don't have an older friend, many of the kids say they get their booze or marijuana from their parent or parents.

Half of the teenagers in the counseling program live with either a single parent or grandparent, said Kelly. In some cases, the parent or both parents work evenings, so the teenager is left unsupervised at critical hours.

"There are a lot of kids on this Island that don't have anyone to look after them during the afternoon or evening," said Kelly. "That's why you can go down Gulf Drive at 9 p.m. on a school night and see groups of kids walking down the road or just hanging out. There's no one home supervising them."

That's not to say that teen drug use is something new to the Island.

"Drugs have been a problem with teenagers on the Island since I started here 17 years ago, and I'm sure it goes back further. Some years, it's worse than others, but the counseling program has had some successes," said Kelly.

Every year, two or three former drug users will "get their act together" and start studying in school and give up their former lifestyle. "They become our success stories, but it's real hard for them to resist the peer pressure from the other kids," observed Kelly.

The few success stories often seem outweighed by the many troubled teens who use the Center's counseling services, she said. The Center provides a safe haven for these "at-risk" teenagers.

"They come here because they know they'll feel valued here," said Kelly. "We listen to their problems. Here, they will talk about their problems and they're not doing drugs, alcohol or engaging in sexual activities here. Away from here, many are poor students who just want to drop out of school and hang out.

"These are not bad kids," said Kelly, noting the majority of teens who use the Center don't have drug and alcohol problems.  "But in many cases, the ones we see in counseling are just neglected or without a father figure at home. Many have no self-esteem and their problems cross all social barriers.

"It's not just one group of kids doing drugs," she added. Kids from some rich families have serious problems with drugs, while some kids from a poor family have no problems at all, she observed. At-risk behavior has no specific profile, she concluded.

And every year, said Kelly, it seems some of the teenagers who are in counseling will be involved in an automobile accident where alcohol was involved, often with tragic results.

"Each year, it seems we hear about one or two of our kids who was killed in a car accident. It's just a shame," Kelly said.

And every year, about 50 Island teenagers will be arrested for possession of illegal drugs. In 2004, a total of 49 juveniles were arrested by the three Island law enforcement jurisdictions on various drug charges, said Kelly. The arrest figures for 2005 have not yet been compiled, she said, but they are likely to be about the same, if not higher.

True, said a local law enforcement officer. The number of Island teenagers arrested for drug possession is just about the same every year, he said. The problem doesn't seem to get worse, but it also doesn't go away.

"And those are just the ones who get caught," added Kelly.

But the Center can only do so much.

With Florida Department of Counseling and Family Affairs restrictions that prohibit teenagers, pre-teens, youngsters and adults from mixing events at the same time without separate rooms and enough floor space, the Center can't schedule programs for everyone at the same time.

"That's why we're expanding the facility," said Kelly.

Those plans include a performing arts center, a culinary center, computer room, technical room, game room, library and more counseling rooms.

The enlarged facility will allow the Center to operate youth, teenager and adult programs at the same time, but in different rooms within the Center. The Center has raised $2 million of the $3 million needed for expansion.

Kelly said about 4,000 people, including Islanders, Longboat Key and Perico residents, use the Center during the course of a year for the various programs.