A rash of drug-related incidents involving Gilbert teenagers in the past weeks — including two deaths — has reignited questions about how pervasive illicit substances may be inside local schools and the social circles of East Valley youths.
Police, school officials and substance abuse counselors agree that marijuana, alcohol and methamphetamine continue to rank at the top of substances abused by teenagers.
On Feb. 29, 15-year-old Jillian Cleary of Chandler died two days after taking methamphetamine at a party in Gilbert.
Wednesday, Christopher Manciet, 18, of Gilbert died after ingesting a packet of cocaine to avoid being caught by police. Mesquite High School officials sent a letter to parents about the death, but made no reference to drug use.
Manciet was riding in a car with friends March 26 when a Gilbert police officer stopped them for a traffic violation, Cmdr. Tim Dorn said Friday. The officer did not notice anything out of the ordinary, Dorn said.
Friends later told police there was cocaine in the car, and that Manciet swallowed a packet in a panicked attempt to hide it from the officer.
Later that night, Dorn said fire crews were sent to treat Manciet for seizures at a Gilbert apartment complex in the 300 block of Civic Center Drive. He was taken to Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa. Police are still waiting for toxicology results.
The Gilbert Unified School District is contending with other incidents on campuses involving prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
Mesa police and fire officials confirmed Friday a 15-year-old girl at the Gilbert district’s Desert Ridge High S chool was hospitalized Thursday on suspicion she had taken the muscle relaxant carisoprodol, brand name Soma, and painkiller Vicodin, or hydrocodone. The girl admitted taking both drugs, but denied she was distributing them, said Mesa police Sgt. Chuck Trapani.
In early March, 29 Gilbert high school students were suspended for buying, using or possessing a muscle relaxant on campus, and two girls overdosed on cold medicine and antidepressants March 25. District officials denied there’s a problem, but school resource officers disagree.
"Less than 1 percent of our students are suspended for drugs and we have zero tolerance," said district spokeswoman Dianne Bowers. Resource officers said a lot of students don’t get caught and reported a significant problem with Soma and cold medicines.
As the district and officers sort it out, more students are getting caught with Soma, a prescription drug that can cause barbiturate or alcoholtype effects. Many cold medicines contain the cough suppressant dextromethorphan, which can cause hallucinations. Taken to excess, users can die.
Bowers said the district has sent letters this week to parents of high school students addressing the Soma issue and will send a letter next week districtwide. She also said the district recently invited parents to a forum on drug trends.
Tribune requests for copies of the letters and pamphlet were denied and high school principals did not know about the information. Superintendent Brad Barrett was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Gilbert police Sgt. Paula Krueger said Soma was a major concern among her school resource officers before the suspensions.
As for cold medicines, teens have always abused them, but "now kids are taking them in amounts that hurt them and in combinations that can kill them," Krueger said.
Russ Warrington, prevention specialist with the nonprofit drug counseling agency Scottsdale Prevention Institute, said even the best parents can be fooled.
"It’s impossible to watch out for everything," Warrington said.
Overall, 54 Gilbert junior high and high school students were arrested in drug cases last year, Krueger said. Eight have been arrested this year.
In the Mesa Unified School District, officials said 14 students have been suspended this year for possessing or being under the influence of prescription drugs. Of those, eight were caught with Soma and one with the painkiller oxycodone, brand name Percocet. The other four were caught with other prescription drugs.
Overall, Mesa police have responded to 20 drug-related calls this year. Last year, they reported 107 drug-related calls.
David Shuff, director of guidance and counseling for the Mesa district, said teenagers have been shifting to prescription drugs and cold medicines because they have easy access to them. They can either get them cheap in Mexico or out of their parents’ medicine cabinets.
Warrington said alcohol and marijuana are still favored by teens, but Soma has been found on every Scottsdale campus.
Tom Herrmann, spokesman for the Scottsdale Unified School District, said there have been no problems reported all year with students taking prescription drugs.
"We have none of it as far as I’m aware," Herrmann said.