July 23, 2024

School panel discussion explores possible causes of increased substance abuse, best response

Michael Bates and Rudi Montoya, Ashland Police Department officers, talked about the significant drug problem in Oregon and how it is changing. photo by Bob Palermini
October 24, 2023

Counselor: ‘It might seem like a drug crisis, but really, it’s an emotional crisis’

By Holly Dillemuth,  

Reports of increased use of cocaine mixed with fentanyl by Ashland High School students while off campus prompted school administrators to host a meeting Thursday, Oct. 19, to help keep parents informed about helpful resources and suggestions on ways to connect with their students.

The “Substance Abuse Awareness Night” panel included local law enforcement, AHS Dean of Students Sarah Weston and Assistant Principal Becca Laroi, as well as the founders of Max’s Mission, David and Julia Pinsky. A panel discussion was followed by a question-and-answer period for parents and area residents at Mountain Avenue Theatre.

“As I wrote to our whole parent community a few days ago,” AHS Principal Ben Bell said, “we’re hearing rumors and stories about some students engaging in and using cocaine, which of course … on its own in and of itself is a really powerful drug and really scary to think about that being in our community, but also understanding that that, too, is often cut with fentanyl, posing even greater risk …. I just felt compelled, we need to reach out to our parents and share from all different angles.”

Ashland High School Principal Ben Bell kicked off the Substance Use Awareness Night event, which featured speakers from five organizations. photo by Bob Palermini

Bell acknowledged that some students are also buying what they believe to be prescription drugs via Snapchat, a social media app, which often ends up being cut with fentanyl.  

In a letter to parents, he said students who are struggling with substance abuse are being directed to counseling through Kolpia and La Clinica.

“I also want to be really clear that this is not just an Ashland High School issue,” Bell told attendees at the meeting. 

Ashland High School staff members greet parents and community members as they enter the Mountain Avenue Theatre for Substance Use Awareness Night on Thursday. photo by Bob Palermini

“These substances are readily available through our community in Ashland,” he said. “They are in our valley and we are not the only high school in this valley that is dealing with these issues, so it’s something that is unfortunately becoming more and more pervasive throughout our area.”

Bell later qualified his comment, telling in an email that he couldn’t speak for other schools about whether they are also seeing the issue.

Ashley Silver, behavioral health specialist, representing La Clinica, discusses student health issues at the Ashland High School Substance Use Awareness Night. photo by Bob Palermini

“We’re as a school really committed to doing everything we can to create a safe environment here for our students and this conversation with you … is part of that process,” Bell said. “We’ve worked diligently this year to develop and strengthen partnerships to help us better support our students and, as parents, you are and will continue to be … the most important influence on their life. And so we want to be as empowered as possible and again to be able to work in partnership with you to be able to support and partner with our kids.”

Max’s Mission had lots of Naloxone kits available for everyone in attendance at the Ashland High School’s Substance Use Awareness Night Thursday. photo by Bob Palermini

Ashland Police Officer Mike Bates, who is also an AHS graduate, was among community members on the panel. 

“Typically if we see cocaine, we see it with something else,” Bates said. “We see marijuana sprinkled with cocaine on top or something like that, not mainly cocaine in the powder or pill form, but typically with something else.”

The criminal amount of cocaine is now 2 grams in the state of Oregon, he said.

Bates urged involvement among parents and their teens.

Laura Pinney, executive director of Rogue Valley Mentoring, talked about how to be aware of potential drug use. photo by Bob Palermini

“Know what they’re up to, know who they’re hanging out with,” he said.

The panel talked about what parents and peers can look for in students who might be experimenting with cocaine or fentanyl.

“I know as I’m a parent, too — I have an eighth-grader at (Ashland Middle School); I have a third-grader at Walker (Elementary School) … You know as a parent, my thing is, what do I look for?” Bell said.

Ashley Silver, behavioral health specialist for La Clinica in the Ashland High School-based Health Center, was on the panel at the event and spoke about the signs and symptoms parents and peers can look for.

Laura Pinney’s program included an exercise for the people who came to the program. photo by Bob Palermini

Understanding why students might use drugs is an important step towards having conversations with them, Silver said.

“There’s really no one-size-fits-all explanation,” Silver said. “There are several top reasons that teenagers and young adults might experiment with drugs. Some of those things might be curiosity, peer pressure, attempting to fit in, trying to feel better.”

Trying to feel better is something Silver sees a lot with youth, especially those who experience 

anxiety and seek an escape through drug use. Students who have a pattern of drug and/or alcohol abuse are especially susceptible to substance abuse.

Laura Pinney, executive director of Rogue Valley Mentoring, makes her presentation on the stage of the Mountain Avenue Theatre on Thursday. photo by Bob Palermini

“They seek alternative methods to forget, feel happier, low esteem or lack of knowledge/education around substance abuse,” Silver said.

“It is important that we start to talk to our teens about drug use, and the increased risk associated with substance abuse because of fentanyl,” she added. 

How to have these tough conversations is essential, too.

Julia Pinsky, executive director of Max’s Mission, a Medford-based organization whose mission is to save lives in Southern Oregon through the free distribution of naloxone, a medication that reverses an opioid overdose, talked about their success in helping to save lives in Jackson, Klamath and Josephine counties. photo by Bob Palermini

Laura Pinney, executive director of Rogue Valley Mentoring, led those in attendance in a modified version of the game Rock, Paper, Scissors, hoping to both encourage connection and to make a point. 

She drew connections between a recent activity of watching salmon in a creek and students and the issues they face in life.

“The salmon are very similar to our youth, right?” Pinney said. “The salmon are a keystone species, which means that they’re essential to the health, to the vitality and the success of the ecosystem, just as our youth are essential to the success of our communities.”

Max’s Mission Executive Director Julia Pinsky manned the table to give away naloxone in the lobby of the Mountain Avenue Theatre on Thursday. photo by Bob Palermini

Pinney sees the issue of increasing substance abuse among youth and young adults as more linked to emotions.

A January 2022 survey of students showing a 30% increase in depression and a 40% 

decrease in hope or excitement about the future, Pinney said.

“We’re more isolated than ever before,” Pinney said, noting social media is among the many factors. “What we’re facing, not just in Ashland, but all over — It might seem like a drug crisis, but really, it’s an emotional crisis. Our youth are swimming up this stream, seeking something 

from their community that they can’t find. They’re seeking something in their lives they’ve not found.”

She shared that Rogue Valley Mentoring provides ways to make youth feel less alone, better connect families, and help community partners feel supported.

The organization offers one-on-one mentoring, matching youth with caring, consistent adults, connecting with hundreds of youth every week, Pinney said.

“This kind of community system is important for all youth,” Pinney said. “Every kid deserves to have trusted adults in their lives.”

After a game of Bear, Salmon, Mosquito — a modified take on Rock, Paper, Scissors — Pinney showed how the approach parents and guardians take with their students matters when it comes to starting important conversations, including about drugs.

Lorrie Smith from Phoenix Counseling Center, which in part specializes in substance use counseling, talked about the services her agency offers. photo by Bob Palermini

“If we can approach these situations from a place of real curiosity … then we might be able to have real conversations with our kids,” she said, drawing applause from attendees.

Following the event, parents had the chance to pick up a lockbox for their prescriptions and naloxone from Julia and David Pinsky. The couple founded the nonprofit after their son died of a heroin overdose about 10 years ago. 

Naloxone is used to reverse a drug overdose, including those of prescription drugs. The community can find more resources at Max’s Mission website:

More meetings are being planned for the near future around the issue.

Email staff reporter Holly Dillemuth at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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