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Teens have a lot to tell to anti-drug group
Cathy Drerup addresses the members of the Drug Free Hall County Coalition during Tuesday's half-day retreat used to identify and map what assets or resources are available in the community. - photo by SCOTT ROGERS The Times
"Just say no" just won’t cut it anymore.

As Hall County volunteers met Tuesday to talk about attacking the problem of teen drug use, several said the simplistic 1980s-era slogan is not enough in the age of text messaging and YouTube.

"I think the typical person’s response to ‘Just say no’ is ‘Why?’" said Dave Westfall, Georgia’s District II Public Health director and one of about 30 people who spent Tuesday afternoon at Peach State Bank & Trust sharing ideas for the budding Hall County Drug-Free Communities Coalition. "People do not respond until they see a personal benefit to making that change."

Some of the most valued input Tuesday came from the youngest participants.

Five students from Lakeview Academy offered their perspectives on the prevalence of substance use and abuse in teen life.

"I am terrified of something happening to one of my friends." said student Emilie Norton. "I would love to remove the cool factor from drugs."

"We have a lot to tell you," student Sara Beth Little said. "There’s a lot of things going on besides what you’ve heard."

Students, educators, social workers and other stakeholders huddled in groups to identify some broad goals for the organization, which began about a year ago but is just starting to coalesce.

In the coming months, coalition members will devise a plan of action for reducing or preventing substance abuse, whether it be a "viral video" Internet campaign or ads on local public access television. The group will also vie for a federal grant, with as much as $125,000 a year available through the U.S. Department of Justice.

Facilitator Cathy Drerup pointed to other local efforts, from Eagle Ranch to the Good News at Noon kitchen for the poor, as proof that commitment to a cause can make a difference.

"Over and over again in this town we live in, people are saying it’s worth it to get to a meeting and see what it takes to move forward," Drerup said. "There can be change."

The coalition will initially focus on preventing Hall County’s young people from using and abusing four substances: alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and prescription drugs.

"Pot is no longer condemned as an activity among these social groups, and that’s wrong that we’ve let it get so far," said Gainesville attorney and parent Jody Cooley, who advocates an expansion of drug testing in schools. "I don’t believe substance abuse is like virginity. I believe substance abuse among young people is a weekend by weekend decision."

Leigh Occhipinti, an intake officer for Hall County Juvenile Court, said many parents are in denial.

"I’ve had parents look the other way and can’t believe their kids are doing this," Occhipinti said.

Gainesville Police Officer Joe Britte and others said parents need to spend more time talking to their kids about substance use.

"I’d like to see parents really take a stand," Britte said.

"Some of them honestly don’t know what to do," said Gainesville High School counselor Pat Ware. "They just don’t understand."

Mary Parks, a coordinator with the Hall County Commission for Children and Families, said Tuesday’s meeting was productive in setting some overall goals. Determining how to meet those goals will be the next step.

"We haven’t gotten there yet," she said. "That’s next — deciding where can we focus our efforts to really make a difference."