For Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp, the descriptive phrase "at-risk youth" is redundant.
"All of our youth is at risk," Sharp told the Oro Valley Optimists Club last week.
There are many risks, of course. Sharp and the Optimists focused Wednesday on drug abuse by young people, and what to do about it.
Is there a drug problem among Northwest youth? Yes. People may want to deny it, but they do so at peril to young people.
"There is a fairly significant amount of drug use that goes on in our high schools," Sharp said. Drugs pour over the nearby border from Mexico. Students may be buying drugs from former students, a cycle that repeats, with sometimes tragic consequences.
"It's out there, folks, it's happening," the Optimists' Don Cox said.
Beyond recognition, the greater challenge is a strategic response. Optimists are seizing the drug issue as a community cause. They want to do things that educate parents and families, and reward positive behaviors by local young people.
"We have to heighten awareness," Cox said. "We have to mobilize our parents."
"Unfortunately, the best thing to motivate and mobilize people is a tragedy," Sharp said. "All too often, that's what happens. Apathy is our biggest enemy. I get accused of fear-mongering, or I'm trying to build an empire," by calling attention to drug problems.
But attention is warranted.
Sharp is concerned by the number of parents who are using drugs, or have addictions of their own. The consequences show up event at elementary schools. That's part of the reason Sharp has a school resource officer in every elementary school in Oro Valley. He's taken heat about that commitment of precious resources. But, he says, "kids tend to parent the way they were parented. Two, three generations from now, it's going to be a real problem for us."
Education, enforcement and prevention are the focal points for law enforcement. Education – to reach parents with information about drug use, what drugs are being abused, what to look for, and what to do. Enforcement, to make sure people selling and using drugs are apprehended. And prevention, to keep kids from starting down the drug path by teaching about the risks, and what they have to lose, and to positively reinforce good choices in an increasingly difficult world.
"What we have here in Oro Valley is special," Sharp said, but "kids are dealing with things today that none of us ever had to deal with."
Sharp sees opportunities for Optimists "to be a clearinghouse" of information, directing people, parents and kids to programs and resources. While he is absolutely committed to help, Sharp said government can't solve this alone. And, he points out, "a lot of people go to government, and right now government doesn't have money."
"We're going to be the McDonald's," Cox said, masterfully marketing through kids, and on to parents, in this case selling happy living rather than Happy Meals. "It's not going to happen overnight. We're going to involve the parents somehow."
Project Graduation, the substance-free after-graduation party concept, has gained traction in the Northwest, and "is now part of the fabric of the community," Sharp said. The society made seat belt usage the norm, changing a behavior not so much through enforcement, but by positive reinforcement.
"How do we do it with drugs?" Sharp asked.
It's a really important question, one being asked today in the Northwest, and across the country.