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Forum highlights new figures in demographics, substance abuse in Johnson County

By Mike Sherry, HCF/KHI News Service, March 28, 2012

Officials must adapt to the changing demographics if they are to continue making inroads against substance abuse in Johnson County.

That was the central message at a Tuesday morning forum at the Ball Conference Center in Olathe.

About 100 people attended the event. Many of them work with troubled and at-risk youngsters. United Community Services of Johnson County, a planning organization, and the Regional Prevention Center of Johnson County organized the forum, which is a program of the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

“Yes, some of our trajectories are going down, but how do we keep them going down,” said Sue Matson, describing the indicators of drug abuse among Johnson County young people. Matson is a prevention coordinator at the prevention center.

Data from the Regional Prevention Center contrasted 2010-2011 results with 2005-2006 data compiled in the Communities That Care survey, which in the last school year was filled out by approximately 26,400 Johnson County students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades.

  • About 8 percent of the respondents said they had smoked cigarettes at least once during the past 30 days, down from about 12.4 percent.
  • About 22.7 percent said they had consumed alcohol within the past 30 days, down from almost 32 percent.
  • About 8.4 percent said they had been drunk or high in school at least once during the past 12 months, down from nearly 11 percent.

But Valorie Carson of United Community Services noted that high school seniors in Johnson County were 30 percent more likely than their peers around the state to have smoked marijuana within the past 30 days.

Meanwhile, Carson said, 5 percent of all the respondents said they had used prescription drugs not prescribed to them within the past 30 days. The prescription drug data bears watching since it was only added three years ago, she said.

Carson said the demographics of the county were changing, which could pose additional problems for courts, law enforcement, schools and other agencies that deal with substance-abuse problems.

Johnson County is more diverse in ethnicity and income than it was a decade ago, she said.

According to U.S. Census figures, more than half of the approximately 93,000 additional residents to the county were from racially or ethnically diverse backgrounds.

One in five county residents that works full-time year-round earns less than $30,000 a year and nearly a quarter of children under the age of 18 live in a single-parent household.

The diversity of the county hit home for Chuck Williams, a juvenile probation officer with Johnson County Court Services, when he heard during discussion at his table that 69 different languages were spoken among students in the Olathe School District.

“That adds a whole lot of problems when you are trying to provide services to juveniles,” he said.
Given the makeup of the population, proposed solutions reported out from discussions at the individual tables included hiring more bilingual staff, making sure kids have transportation, and making better use of social media tools.

Drug enforcement is also part of the mix. School officials at the forum reported backpack checks and other methods to keep students from bringing banned substances to sporting events.

That made sense to Carson, who said it makes a significant difference in future substance abuse if the introduction to drugs and alcohol comes later for kids.

Making access more difficult is one way to do that, she said.

Shedding stereotypes also is important, said Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services.

Data does not bear out the assumption some have that minorities and low-income individuals are more prone to substance abuse, she said.

“It’s really important we understand the facts so we can put in place programs that really meet the need,” she said.

Closing out the program, Dawana Wade, senior vice president of mission services and urban outreach for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, told forum participants that they should draw on the expertise of their peers. And that, she said, included taking advantage of relationships built at the forum.

“Don’t just put that (business) card in your Rolodex,” she said. “Use it.”


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