The fact that four former Lehighton students have died due to drug or alcohol-related episodes in the past eight months is a staggering statistic for a small community.

Last Tuesday, the Lehighton school district took an important step in keeping the public better informed on the hazards of alcohol and drug abuse, which high school Principal Tim Tkach calls a cancer among our youth, since it doesn't pick and choose its victims, but randomly covers the entire spectrum of society.

Such a community threat requires a coordinated response and the district was able to provide the high school facility for the forum, which included 300 community residents as well local officials, including Jamie Drake, treatment program manager for Carbon-Monroe-Pike County Drug and Alcohol Commission, Mayor Donald Rehrig and a number of councilmen.

The outpouring of interest was so great that another information session is planned for June 21, at which time more local and county officials are expected to discuss strategies on how to attack the problem from all angles.

In a recent random poll, Tkach said he was surprised to learn that of the students from all grade levels, only 10 percent said they wanted to stay in the area.

"The common statement heard from young people is 'There's nothing for us to do ...' That is sad and our goal as parents and community members should be to ask ourselves what we can can do to make it a better area to live," Tkach said. Through educational programs, working together with drug and alcohol officials and other schools, we need to attack this head-on."

Tkach said that in Lehighton, middle school students are at an age when they can easily fall victim to the drug and alcohol menace, but in other inner city areas such as Allentown, that figure can be as young as 7 or 8 years old.

The Lehighton administrator said the first line of defense always starts at home and that when a child makes a decision, the parents need to be cognizant and respond by making an informed decision. He says drinking has been around for centuries but with the mixing of pills and opiates, the threat is much greater today since everyone's body reacts differently.

"It's no longer all right to have kids drinking in the basement," Tkach said. "It's our goal to inform and educate. If parents aren't aware of what's going on or how to respond, it could be one of our kids laying in the casket."

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com