CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Year after year, educators in McDowell County have seen the same tragic story unfold in their schools: Students pop pills, snort drugs, start skipping class and eventually abandon school altogether.
On Monday, the state Supreme Court announced it would create a juvenile drug court in the southern coalfield region to try to tackle one part of McDowell's devastating youth drug problem.
"We have to reverse the insidious drug culture that is ruining kids' futures and, sadly, taking too many lives," West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis said at a meeting in Charleston. "Juvenile drug courts have a direct relationship to West Virginia's truancy problems. All too often, young teenage truants are skipping school because of illegal drug use."
Rampant drug abuse destroys the lives of hundreds of students each year in McDowell County and creates a daunting educational hurdle, said Jim Brown, superintendent of McDowell County schools.
In the past two years, about 70 students were expelled from McDowell County for offenses tied to substance abuse, Brown said. Drugs account for about 70 percent of all the student expulsions in the county, which has the nation's highest rate of unintentional deaths from abuse of prescription narcotic drugs.
"This drug court is one of the best announcements I've heard," Brown said. "It's a huge step for our schools."
The Supreme Court's juvenile drug court is the most recent effort in the program called Reconnecting McDowell, a sprawling national turnaround initiative spearheaded by the American Federation of Teachers that started in December.
It pairs more than 60 public and private agencies in a five-year push to fix crippling infrastructure, technology, transportation and education issues in McDowell.
"We need to come up with ways of ensuring that kids can actually dream their dreams and achieve them," said Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. "These efforts at truancy and early intervention are parts of the puzzle."
The student drug problem has exploded in McDowell and across West Virginia over the decades, and courts have been inundated with juvenile drug cases. About 6,500 youths in West Virginia are under some form of court-ordered diversion program or supervision by a probation officer, according to the West Virginia Judiciary.
West Virginia first established a juvenile drug court pilot project in 1999 in Cabell County. Statewide there are now more than a dozen juvenile drug courts. Davis says they're working.
"We've got a 76 percent success rate and that speaks volumes," Davis said. "When these students graduate from these courts, they become productive citizens. I've said that eight out of 10 persons in West Virginia prisons were truants. If we don't start this early on the elementary and high school levels, then we have to deal with the same students in our jails and prisons."
McDowell's proposed juvenile drug court, which will begin in several months, pairs juvenile justice, social service, law enforcement and education systems to provide treatment to nonviolent children with alcohol and substance abuse problems. Students report to a drug court probation officer on a near-daily basis and must complete random urine screens, educational tasks and community service.
"When asked what I think the impact of this program will be we have two options: You can try or not -- and as far as I'm concerned, I'd much rather try," said Mercer County Family Court Judge Lisa Clark. "We hope for great things. There's not a shortage of talented children in McDowell, we just have to give them other opportunities."
Clark will preside over the new juvenile drug court.