Rising alarm over Xanax abuse by Sonoma County students

As the nation wrestles with an opioid crisis, another category of prescription drugs is popping up on Sonoma County school campuses.

A growing number of kids are abusing the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, school and law enforcement officials say, and it’s not just in high schools. It’s part of a class of psychoactive drugs known as benzodiazepine, and they also are creeping into middle schools throughout Sonoma County, where 765 students were suspended this past school year for drugs, including alcohol and marijuana.

Xanax is the most widely abused prescription drug among students, school and law enforcement officials said. Part of the draw is the accessibility.

“It is everywhere,” said Morgan Shepherd, a Social Advocates for Youth certified alcohol and drug counselor who works with students at Piner High School.

Shepherd first noticed about a year ago an uptick in the number of kids abusing Xanax. Now, she said, kids come to her with a Xanax abuse problem nearly every week, most often getting the drug from their family’s medicine cabinet.

She recently spoke to nearly 40 parents at Maria Carrillo High School, where administrators are raising awareness about the drug’s dangers after a student overdosed in December but survived. Shepherd said 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription drugs.

Another Santa Rosa school district student recently was rushed to the hospital after taking too much Xanax, said Sgt. Dave Linscomb, who supervises school resource officers for the Santa Rosa Police Department.

“We have seen that citywide,” Linscomb said.

Petaluma City Schools have seen three student overdoses so far this school year, Student Services Assistant Superintendent Dave Rose said. Two involved marijuana edibles and one Xanax.

Students often turn themselves in to school officials after feeling nausea and other side effects, said Santa Rosa Police Resource Officer Dan Jones, who works on the Maria Carrillo campus. The school then will either call parents or an ambulance. If a student struggles with speaking, he said they’ll err on the side of caution and call the paramedics.

Depending on the amount students ingest and other drugs they mix, Jones said the sedative can be dangerous and, in some cases, lethal.

A 19-year-old Fresno State student died last month after apparently overdosing on Xanax. According to reports, Omar Nemeth spent a day taking pills and smoking marijuana before his younger brother found him unresponsive and slumped over a couch at a fraternity house.

After alcohol and marijuana, prescription drugs are the most misused substance among youth ages 14 and older, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It found last year that 1 in 6 high school seniors previously misused prescription drugs and 1 in 10 seniors did so within the past year.

Prescription drugs are easier to conceal compared to alcohol and marijuana, which is part of the lure, Rose said. He said students also mistakenly believe the medication is safe because doctors prescribe it.

And there’s a growing concern about counterfeit Xanax pills hitting the market laced with the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“If students don’t see it as harmful, they’re going to partake,” said Rose, whose district also is working with parents, law enforcement and other agencies to combat the drug.

In San Diego County this past fall, six middle school students became ill - three of them admitted to a hospital or urgent care facility - after taking Xanax pills supplied by a classmate.

Petaluma City Schools this past school year had 106 drug-related suspensions, a dozen more than the previous year. Rose said only a handful have been related to Xanax. But he said counselors are seeing more students turn to prescription drugs, a concern for health officials.

“Using any prescription medication that was not prescribed by a doctor is a concern from a public health perspective,” said Dr. Karen Milman, the county’s health officer. “Youth and adolescents are at increased risk for complications, as their brains and bodies are still developing.”

School officials said in addition to getting pills from home, students are buying them online or from classmates. Pills go for about $2 to $3 on the street.

Parents usually aren’t aware of the drug use until their kids run into trouble, said Vicki Zands, principal at Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High School.

“It’s usually a shock to most parents when they find out,” she said. “It’s lack of knowledge, not negligence.”

She immediately reached out to parents after the overdose on campus just before winter break. At that time, Zands said she and other administrators also started hearing from students worried about classmates taking Xanax with alcohol at off-campus parties and waking up in different towns, unaware of how they got there or whether they were sexually assaulted.

“Kids are taking more Xanax and being offered more Xanax than in the past,” said Zands, who organized the drug abuse presentation last week at Maria Carrillo.

She said one student was suspended last month for Xanax.

Maria Carrillo officials said during the presentation they average 25 drug-related suspensions each school year - some of them from repeat offenders. They’re only halfway through this school year, but officials already have had 17 suspensions.

Several parents complained at the meeting their kids are uncomfortable using school bathrooms because classmates sneak in to smoke and use or sell drugs.

Michelle McHale said she urges her 15-year-old daughter, a freshman at Maria Carrillo, not to take any food or snacks from other students.

“It’s sobering to have (these) discussions on the way to school,” McHale said. “You’d rather say ‘go to school and have a good day.’?”

Matt Marshall, student services director for the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, said he hasn’t seen Xanax at their campuses. He said the district refers students with drug problems to the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center, which sends a counselor weekly to Rancho Cotate High School. They’ve referred 30 students this school year, he said.

Marshall wants the counselor on the middle school campuses. He said middle school is a time when kids are experimenting with risky behavior and testing boundaries.

“We just don’t want to discipline kids for it. We want to help them, give them an avenue to making better choices,” he said.

School officials said October’s wildfires could be playing a role in the increase. More students may be taking the drug to deal with anxiety and depression in the wake of the fires.

“I can’t say for sure there is a correlation, but I can say we suspended more students this year for drug- and alcohol-related offenses,” Zands said.

The school will boost its substance abuse education, as well as supervision of bathrooms, while the district is rolling out an app students can use to anonymously report campus problems to administrators. The school also will search students’ belongings more thoroughly when it suspects they may be using drugs.

“We know we need to search their wallets,” she said. “They don’t keep their Xanax in plastic baggies in their backpacks.”

Jones urged parents to watch for signs such as slurred speech, sluggishness, nausea and irritability. He said they also need to monitor their kids’ posts on social media.

“Our parents were all up in our business as kids. Now it’s your turn,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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