Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe decided to take action after a former student who struggled with drug addiction died by suicide last spring.
Within weeks after the student’s death, Marlowe, who is an English and history teacher at Newberry High School, met with the Alachua County Health Promotion and Wellness Coalition to learn about drug use in teens.
Based on statistics from the 2016 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, he learned that the county ranked second in the state for opioid addiction among teenagers.
Marlowe said that his loss and shock about the extent of the problem prompted him to start a task force to fight opioid use among teens in the county.
The coalition defines opioids as pain-relieving prescription drugs.
“The end goal would be that I never lose another student and protect my own children,” he said.
In 2016, 4.8 percent of high schoolers in Alachua County were using opioids, more than double the state average of 2 percent, said Francelette Garcia, program director of the coalition.
New numbers from the 2018 survey show that opioid use among high schoolers in the county and state decreased but increased for middle schoolers.
“The numbers have gone down,” Garcia said. “But the problem is worse because kids are using younger and younger.”
In 2018, the survey showed use among high schoolers at 1 percent and the state average at 1.4 percent, Garcia said. For middle schoolers, the state average for opioid use was 1 percent and the county was at 1.4 percent.
The task force was started to help raise awareness of the addiction problem, Marlowe said. Members will be appointed later this month and will begin to create an initiative to find the cause of the problem.
Marlowe launched the Newberry United website in late October to fundraise and provide resources for people who are or know of someone struggling with opioid addiction.
Garcia said she believes there is a problem with opioids among younger children because pills are easy to access, conceal and take.
“It’s easy to take it and put it in your pocket,” Garcia said.
Marlowe plans to continue the campaign with a strong presence on social media and a billboard funded by the coalition in Newberry.
He said he received overwhelming support after he reached out to the Newberry, Gainesville and Alachua County commissions, as well as the Alachua County School Board.
“We certainly are shocked that this was under the radar,” said Gainesville At-large City Commissioner Helen Warren.
Marlowe also partnered with local businesses and organizations, including Warm Hearts, a Buchholz High School club. The group makes care packages and tie dyes T-shirts for the homeless in Gainesville.
Warm Hearts will identify high school students to participate in a study designed to better understand how much students know about drug use and addiction, said Natalia Andraka, an 18-year-old Buchholz senior and founder of Warm Hearts.
“The most dangerous possibility is not to have anyone or anywhere to go,” Andraka said. “Especially when you’re so young.”
FILE - This Aug. 15, 2017, file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York.