Several years ago, when my older son was in seventh grade, he casually mentioned that a girl who sat next to him in one of his classes was "always high."
We had spoken previously about drugs. I had warned him before he started middle school that in the years to come drugs and alcohol would be prevalent, and I discussed with him how to respond.
But when he made the revelation, I couldn't help thinking, "Already?"
I put aside my shock at his disclosure — and the nonchalant way he had announced it — and used the opportunity for a deeper conversation. I asked questions, assiduously avoiding any appearance of an interrogation that might have caused him to clam up.
Other parents have no doubt had similar scenes with their kids, and have wondered, like me, whether we can ever do enough to counter the pervasiveness of drugs and alcohol, and media images that tend to glamorize, or at least gloss over, their use.
The problem was made abundantly clear by a recent report from Newport Beach police that heroin-related arrests are up dramatically, particularly among youth.
Cheap black tar heroin distributed by Mexican street gangs is increasingly being used at high-school parties in Newport, they said.
Other reports have underscored disheartening trends. In Newport-Mesa, 29% of ninth- and 10th-grade students, and 41% of 11th- and 12th-grade students, reported having had at least one alcoholic drink in the past 30 days, according to the 2010 California Healthy Kids Survey.
In addition, 79% of the district's 11th-grade students responded that it was "easy" to get alcohol.
Nationally, the trends are disturbing. A 2010 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found a steady increase in overall illicit drug use since 2007 among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders.
After alcohol and marijuana, the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications continues to be one of the biggest problems. One of the few bright spots is cigarette smoking, which has undergone several years of decline among young people, although the NIDA study indicated that the drop appears to have stalled.
Such statistics are hardly news to professionals, such as Vlad Anderson, a school resource officer with the Newport Beach Police Department who has worked at Newport Harbor High School and is currently posted at Corona del Mar High School.
As part of his job, Anderson, a thoughtful, soft-spoken former Marine, works with kids and parents on a daily basis to combat youth drug and alcohol abuse. Tough as it is, he's passionate about the role he plays, which he sees as more educator than enforcer.
"I think this is the best assignment in law enforcement," he said. "I talk to the kids. I try to reach out to them. I really feel like this is a position where you can change people's lives."
Anderson has experienced a few eye-openers of his own over the years, such as an encounter several years ago with a student who carried three separate containers of marijuana.
When Anderson asked the student why he had three containers, the boy replied that each held a different strain of marijuana, all producing a different effect. The episode was instructive because it was a clear example of how skilled growers had become in manipulating the potency of marijuana. But the boy's world-wise demeanor was what struck Anderson most; he had become a discriminating pot user, a troubling sign in one so young.
At a recent PTA meeting, Anderson related another sad epiphany he experienced on the job. The story involved a call from parents who were distraught over their daughter's drug use. Arriving at their beautiful home, Anderson noticed that the girl appeared to have all the material comforts that a teenager could desire.
But when he spoke to the girl, she was adamant. She wasn't going to give up drugs, she said, and nothing anyone told her would change her mind. Years later, Anderson is still haunted by the episode; perhaps that's why he strives so hard to reach kids while they're still listening.
Anderson's heartfelt dedication is reassuring, but he stresses that it takes an entire community working together to make a real impact on the problem. And the most important part of that effort is parents.
"I think we need to get back to basics," he said.
Parents need to spend time with their kids, and know the friends they're hanging out with. They should get to know other parents. Alcohol and medications shouldn't be left lying around. Parents mustn't be afraid to say no when their children want to go to a party that isn't properly supervised.
Most important: Parents need to talk to their kids, and they need to listen. If stories about other youths or celebrities with drug problems are made public, parents can use the news as an opportunity for a family discussion.
And parents must remember that kids are still kids — impulsive, hypersensitive, impressionable. It might not always feel like it, but children — even the older ones — do count on their parents to teach them good judgment.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.