GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO) - The number of District 51 students being expelled for drug related incidents is on the rise. And authorities say that's just a snap shot of the much larger problem of teens using marijuana.
At the end of another, a bright spot for School District 51 -- overall, the number of students expelled was down significantly from last year.
But a closer look at the figures brings troubling news -- the number of students expelled for drug related incidents shot up from 24 in the 2008-2009 school year to 34 in the 2009-2010 school year. It was the only category that saw an increase.
"Whatever is happening in our community is going to roll over into our schools," said Tim Leon, Safety Coordinator for School District 51.
Leon says although the district does not track what types of drugs are getting students into trouble, he believes the main culprit this year was marijuana.
"It's readily available in our community," said Leon. "So the easier it is for [students] to get, the sooner they're going to get involved in it."
Something that Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger says has caught his attention.
"There is no question that a lot more kids are getting regular access to marijuana," said Hautzinger. "And I think there's zero question what's causing it. It's coming from the explosion of medical marijuana in our community."
He says in the past six to nine months -- roughly the same time frame dispensaries began popping up in the valley -- there's been a dramatic increase in the number of juvenile pot related cases coming through his office. While he's not insinuating that the dispensaries are selling to students, he says their increased presence and lack of regulation surrounding them are giving teens easier access to marijuana.
"These aren't people who have medical marijuana cards, they're people who are getting ticketed by the police," said Hautzinger.
A major concern, he says, when it comes to the future well being of the community.
"It is a gateway drug," said Hautzinger. "Most of the meth addicts we're dealing with now started with pot."
School officials say it's for that reason, they try to intervene as early as possible -- suspending students for their first offense in most cases and taking other steps to make sure their message about drugs in school is clear.
"It's an absolute zero tolerance," said Leon.
And it seems to be having an effect. Of the 146 related incidents reported at high schools and middle schools this year, less than 25 percent resulted in expulsions.
"We see more suspensions, which tells me we're doing a better job of detecting kids under the influence and reacting to that," said Leon. "But we're not seeing a lot of repeat offenders."
But the district says there's more it can do and more it will do so next year's numbers tell a different story.
"That's always going to be our focus," said Leon.