OAKWOOD — For teenagers in Hall County, drugs are easy to get and easy to hide.
For parents, keeping their kids from starting is far harder. And in some cases, the end result has been deadly.
Two parents who lost their teenage sons to drugs were among those attending a Tuesday night forum on youth substance abuse hosted by Hall and Gainesville schools and the Drug Free Coalition of Hall County at Gainesville State College.
A panel of school, law enforcement and counseling professionals discussed who is affected by drug abuse, what drugs are abused and what parents can do. Some of the starkest answers came from the audience.
“What’s the face of drug abuse? My son,” said Jeff Waggoner, father of 18-year-old Evan Waggoner, who died in November from a suspected overdose of prescription pills. “I’m a parent of a dead teenager.”
Amy Smith, whose 16-year-old son Ryan died from a drug overdose in 2008, said she was startled to learn of teens drinking multiple bottles of cough syrup to get high or popping dozens of anti-anxiety pills at a time.
“My son started at 13 and died at 16,” Smith said.
Most on the forum’s panel agreed that teens can easily access drugs and that there’s no stereotypical drug user.
“It used to be only the drop-outs or the very wealthy,” said Hall County State Court Solicitor Stephanie Woodard. “Now go on Facebook, and look at the bright and smiling faces — that’s the face of drug abuse. Now it can be any teenager.”
For teens, getting drugs is as easy as opening a medicine cabinet or sending a text message, panelists said.
“I think I could give a kid $50 and by the end of the school day they would have 20 pills,” said Sgt. Ron Dobbins, a Hall County Sheriff’s school resource officer.
“Getting drugs is just as easy as walking into a convenience store,” said Ritchie Romero, a teenage recovering addict currently living at 3-Dimensional Life, a residential rehabilitation center in East Hall.
Romero said even if parents stress the dangers of drugs to their children, that may not deter them.
“As much as you care about them, there’s only so much you can do,” Romero said. “I knew what I was doing when I was doing drugs.”
Romero said he believes the best parents can do is build real connections with their children, “to be able to show them that you care.”
Audience member Ray Hawkins said he would like to see teens step up to prevent drug use among their peers.
“Kids want to be in control and they want to handle situations,” Hawkins said. “It would be nice if they could take on a stronger role,” in deterring drug use.
Woodard said parents need to take a hard look at their own practices, particularly when it comes to prescription drug use.
“The only place you can start where you are in control is yourself,” she said. “Turn a mirror on yourself. Children learn what they live.”
Tuesday’s discussion was one of two parental forums on youth substance abuse being held this week. The second forum will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Gainesville High School’s Performing Arts Center. The public is invited.