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Crowd comes out for drug and violence expo

A throng of teens, law enforcement officers and county dignitaries wove their way through a row of booths and exhibits at the Carroll County Agriculture Center on Friday morning for the inaugural Carroll County Drug and Violence Awareness Expo.

Teens from Winters Mill and North Carroll high schools mingled among tables staffed by representatives from Narcotic Anonymous, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Carroll County Health Department and more than 40 other presenters, while others got up close to a Carroll County Sheriff's Office police cruiser.

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There was a long line for the drunken driving simulator, a go-cart-like vehicle that challenged drivers to avoid cones and cardboard pedestrians on a course that covered a third of the cavernous Shipley Arena at the Ag Center.

The expo was a coordinated effort between Carroll law enforcement and public health officials, spearheaded by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, all in response to what has been a resurgent epidemic of heroin use and drug overdoses. There were 29 drug overdose fatalities in Carroll County in 2014, according to Carroll County Sheriff's Office statistics, 12 of which were a result of heroin and three others from prescription opioid medications.

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The teens at the event were often more engaged with the ancillary displays, such as self-defense demonstrations by martial artists, than with the presentations on the dangers of drugs. But most had seen the information before in their schools, and the event, organizers said, was as much about networking for presenters as it was informing teens.

Speakers scheduled throughout the day covered topics such as gang violence, sexual assualt, addiction recovery and what it's like to lose a loved one to an overdose. Cathleen Drew, education director at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Museum, was up first at 11 a.m., giving the audience a crash course in the neurochemistry of addiction, the way in which drugs like cocaine and heroin interrupt the brain's natural reward system.

It wasn't entirely new information to many of the students in attendance, but they listened with interest.

"It expands information that you already know," said Javier Rojas, a Winters Mill sophomore. "It's very interesting. Drugs are bad."

Winters Mill freshman Cody Viney thought the presentations were intriguing but said he wasn't sure how much they would deter someone who was thinking of trying drugs.

"It might convince them a little bit. I'm not sure how much — it depends on how determined they were," he said. "I like seeing all the stuff that they have here. Not all of it affects me, but there are things that interest kids to get them in here — it's a good test run."

Viney said it was the more visceral displays — such as the simulated drunken driving and some other features of the expo — that he thought might carry the most weight with his peers in terms of dissuading them from engaging in risky behaviors.

"The wrecked car over there, that affected me," he said, referring to a crumpled car illustrating the trauma of a drunken driving accident. "You go, 'Oh crap, that's what happens when you are drunk,' and it can happen to you and your friends and it would be bad."

Christian Nolasco, who is also a Winters Mill freshman, tried his hand at the drunken driving simulator and said it had given him a new appreciation for just how dangerous drunken driving in a real vehicle could be.

"It doesn't do what I want it to do," he said of the go-cart. "If I were to drive drunk, I would be hitting lots of stuff. I hit a lot of cones, and I think I hit the [cardboard cutout of a] pedestrian."

Not everything at the expo was directly related to drug and alcohol abuse.

Some students said that what was more powerful than the information presented was having seen firsthand how drug use had changed the lives of their peers for the worse.

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"Some people overlook the fact that drugs can do bad things, but then you see people in your grade go from being fine to, [in] their senior year, going crazy because their on drugs and stuff," said Sarah Rhoads, a Winters Mill freshman. "When you see someone go through the changes of drugs, it makes you not want to do it."

It's not entirely surprising that many of the students who had come to the expo were familiar with the topics covered by the presenters, since most were students who were currently taking a health class, according to Kevin Durbin, a Winters Mill sophomore. The result was a bit of preaching to the choir.

"Kids who are not taking health this quarter are not coming to this. That's what it comes down to," he said. "You either need to have something like this at the school, which mine does … or you have something like this on a weekend."

Andy Hicks, a health and social studies teacher at Winters Mill said he did not necessarily disagree with Durbin's assessment but felt it was still important to expose health students to the topics of drug abuse and violence in the larger environment than their classrooms — an environment where they could also interact with the police and health officials who deal with these topics in the community on a daily basis.

"[The students] are the experts now. They are the ones that can go back to tell their friends what they saw, show them the handouts and the freebies," Hicks said. "I think bringing in more students would definitely be something toward the right direction. We try to bring in people to the schools so that maybe more kids will ask questions, but I think bringing kids to these events will be more beneficial."

There was still some ingredient that was missing, Durbin said, something that would make the expo, or something like it, work for both those teens committed being drug-free and those at-risk alike.

"The law enforcement can't really reach out to druggies because the druggies see the law enforcement as bad," he said. "So you have to find some sort of middle ground: somebody that can talk with the law, sophisticatedly, that can also talk with the druggies."

Bringing peers who have used drugs in to speak with teens is a powerful strategy, according to Linda Auerback, substance abuse prevention supervisor at the Carroll County Health Department and one of the organizers of the expo. Unfortunately, she said, it's not an arrangement that can be made on a consistent basis.

"I have done that in the past, but you have to have parental permission. I had a 16-year-old girl that was using heroin at an after school event and she was blowing parents away and she was telling kids how stupid it was and how she was stripping [in Baltimore]," Auerback said. "Sometimes parents don't want their kids to do that because they are ashamed and you have to be careful with how long a person has been in recovery; you don't want them to relapse."

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It also is not always necessary, Auerback said, for teens or other at-risk people to come away from an event like the expo with a sudden epiphany about the dangerous of drug use, the positive effects of the event's messaging being both subtle and cumulative.

"There isn't going to be, 'Oh, I'm never using again!' It's a tool that you add to the protective factors in their lives. They more [protective factors] they have, the easier it is for them to make good choices," Auerback said. "They left there today and may not think they were affected, but they may be at a party three weeks from now and a friend might be drinking and they will decide they don't want it to happen to them."

As students from Winters Mill and North Carroll filed out of the Ag Center by early afternoon, others from the Carroll County Technology Center and Silver Oak Academy filtered in, along with parents and families, according to Auerback, who estimated 200 to 250 students attended over the course of the day and 400 to 500 people in total.

The advantage of a large-scale event such as the expo, Auerback said, is that its success can be defined by more than one thing: While students were exposed to information about the consequences of drug use, other members of the community were exposed to various resources, and the people providing those resources were exposed to one another. Parents came to Auerback for the phone numbers of sober homes for their children and the operator of a halfway house asked for Health Department staff to come train their facility.

"I believe it was successful because … [the goal] was really to reach out and to let the community know that there are resources here; that's why there were 50 exhibitors," she said. "You hear so many times, 'I didn't know where to go. I didn't know there were services.' We wanted to let the community know what is going on, what's out there and who you can call. To me, everything else, having speakers and demonstrations, was a plus."

There is already talk between the Health Department and the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, Auerback said, of holding another expo next year.

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