By Jeannie Ohm Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/5/2004 6:41:57 PM ET 2004-02-05T23:41:57

It started out like any other school morning. The hallways filled with students rushing to get to their next class while simultaneously catching up on the latest gossip. 

But at 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, all six high schools in North Carolina’s Alamance-Burlington School District went into lockdown mode. Officers from several law enforcement agencies had already gathered at the schools for a massive drug bust.

By the end of the morning, 49 students — out of a total high school enrollment of about 6,300 — were taken into custody on felony drug charges of “possession with intent to sell and deliver.”  The majority of cases involve marijuana, but there were other drugs including ecstasy, Oxycontin and cocaine.

"It alarms us greatly that these arrests confirm our gravest fears — that the drug culture and activities that exist in our community also exist on our school campuses,” Superintendent Jim Merrill said.

The arrests were the culmination of a five-month-long undercover investigation after school principals began noticing a disturbing increase in drug use. 

At the same time, the number of violent crimes on the campuses was also on the rise. In recent school surveys, parents also reported their growing suspicions and concerns.

After the school district approached law enforcement, "Operation Safe Schools" was born last fall. 

For months, officers posed as students to penetrate the teens’ worlds. Those caught up in the sting came from different backgrounds. “It’s a good cross-representation of kids in the county,“ said Capt. Greg Seal of the Burlington Police Department.

National trend?
At first, what’s happening in North Carolina appears to contradict a national trend of declining drug use by teens. 

A 2003 Monitoring the Future survey released by the Department of Health and Human Services shows drug use among eighth, 10th and 12th graders dropped by 11 percent in the last two years. 

”This survey offers promising signs that more children and young adults are steering clear of illegal drugs,”  HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said.

Yet another report shows more teens are being treated for drug abuse, especially marijuana, than a decade earlier. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration cited a 49 percent increase in the number of children aged 12-17 being treated for drug abuse.  In 2001, 141,403 adolescents were admitted to treatment, compared with 95,000 in 1992. 

SAMHSA spokeswoman Leah Young said these numbers are not a reflection of growing drug use but actually show a positive trend, “More kids in treatment getting the help they need is always good until no one is dependent or addicted to drugs.”

New approach
But as the North Carolina arrests illustrated, despite the number of teens getting help for their drug problems, there are many others eager to experiment and take risks.

The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign unveiled a new strategy this week, but it was lost among the Janet Jackson–Justin Timberlake Super Bowl breast flap.  

During the second half of the game, a new ad showed a young woman standing on a dock ignoring a drowning friend’s cries for help. 

Those working on the campaign say they realize the message isn’t getting across to some teens about drug prevention. 

So the new strategy is going after the peers and parents of teens who’ve already started talking drugs in the hopes of getting them help before police arrive in their classroom.

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