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Veteran judge concerned over rise in drug abuse among young

Lancaster Town Judge Timothy Dwan remembers a time, long before he began counting down to retirement, when dealing with teen drug abuse meant shaking up kids caught with booze or pot.

But in the past few years, he has started handling far more severe cases involving some of the town's brightest kids.

A high school football star. An honors student at the University at Buffalo. The granddaughter of a retired, high-ranking police officer.

They were heroin addicts.

"These parents, they are in a state of shock when they learn my Johnny, my Mary, how could they get into these drugs?" he said.

Lancaster police Detective Tim Murphy said narcotics arrests began skyrocketing in 2005, with records showing the majority of the arrests made so far this year involving young people. Nine cases have involved children under age 16, not including any arrests made at the high school.

Local officials and community leaders say they are devoting more time and resources to the youth drug problem than ever before. Among the changes being made this year:

The Town Board has created a new Drug Court, similar to Amherst's, to try to reform nonviolent drug abusers moving through the criminal-justice system for the first time. Training is expected to start next week, Dwan said.

The Police Department is creating a new two-officer Narcotics Bureau, enabling those officers to focus entirely on drug-related crime. Murphy, head of detectives, said he hopes to have the bureau up and running by the end of the year.

The Lancaster Youth Bureau is organizing a Lancaster-Depew Substance Abuse Coalition. The coalition would include representatives from the courts, police, schools, churches, Youth Bureau and other community agencies.

The coalition has just started meeting and hopes to raise money and host events to address drug abuse in the community, said Youth Bureau Director John Trojanowsky.

Teenage drug abuse is not a new phenomenon in Lancaster or any other suburb. The difference is that in recent years, more young people have been caught with killing drugs -- addictive opiates like the prescription pain killer OxyContin and its powerful street relative, heroin.

Educators and law enforcement officials agree the trend is extremely disturbing, even as they wage a public relations campaign to reassure parents that the town and schools aren't facing some out-of-control drug epidemic.

Dwan called media characterizations of the problem "overblown." But he also called the recent spike in teen cases involving hard-core drugs the biggest change in Lancaster crime patterns he has seen in more than 30 years.

In the past two years alone, he said, he has presided over roughly 20 cases involving teens abusing prescription painkillers, heroin or cocaine.

Superintendent Edward Myszka recently sent a letter home with all students to tell parents that Lancaster is no different from any other school district when it comes to drugs and has multiple programs in place to address the issue.

But no school district official denies that the severity of drugs being used by students these days is worrisome, particularly the use of prescription painkillers, which are often hard to detect.

Keith Kerl, a Lancaster police officer who works full time as a resource officer at Lancaster High School, said even the school's highest achievers aren't immune to the drug lure.

"The severity of the drugs they're taking is moving beyond the experimental stage," he said. "You see more kids getting addicted, more kids committing crimes to support their habit. It's frightening, the severity and the strength of the drugs they're taking."

In the 2005-06 school year, Lancaster High School reported 21 incidents of students caught in the use, possession or sale of drugs. But a routine sweep with drug dogs in May found no evidence of drugs when lockers, cars and some classrooms with student belongings were searched, said school officials.

Principal Daniel Paveljack added that neither cocaine nor heroin has ever been found at school. "I know there have been rumors out there," he said, "but they are totally unfounded."

Kerl, however, said he did follow a student to a Buffalo drug house in March and apprehended him after he returned to the town carrying heroin.

As Dwan prepares to step off the bench, he said he worries about the future and hopes that parents take the lead in keeping their kids safe.

"I've got my heart and soul in this community," he said. "I want the community to get in the fight with me and the police. We can't do it alone."


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