When Loudoun's drug abuse prevention specialists meet with parents across the county, they come equipped with visual aids.
They bring a paper towel roll, to show how kids can fashion a smoking device out of it. They demonstrate how some teenagers gut cigars and pack them with marijuana, and warn that parents should be suspicious if they find cigar remains in the trash. And they bring boxes of Coricidin, an over-the-counter cough medicine that is the latest trend in drug use among county teenagers.
The point is to arm parents with knowledge so they do not miss warning signs that their children are using drugs.
Increasingly, the abuse prevention specialists have new allies in the fight -- parents themselves.
Last year, Loudoun was one of just 70 counties in the country to receive a grant from federal drug-fighting agencies to set up community coalitions that bring parents and experts together to address drug abuse by youth.
The four-year grant, worth $100,000 a year, is being used to establish four groups, each covering a geographic region of the county. The groups meet regularly and are starting to organize events for teenagers and forums for parents, including some featuring the presentation from the abuse specialists. The leaders of the four groups also meet as an organizational council.
"I think a lot of parents don't know that kids are doing things like this," said Holly Chapple, who helps run the Leesburg coalition, called L.U.C.Y or Leesburg Uniting Community and Youth. "I think they don't realize how much exposure kids have on a daily basis to kids who are using."
Recent highly publicized cases of youth drug use have focused attention on the problem. In March, a Broad Run High School freshman was shot to death in the basement of an Ashburn home where authorities found drugs and weapons. At memorial services and in school programs afterward, some teenagers pledged to avoid drugs and make good decisions in their lives.
Then, on May 7, five ninth-graders at Harmony Intermediate School in Hamilton were taken to the hospital after ingesting a combination of Coricidin and Dramamine in a school restroom.
In surveys, drug use among Loudoun teens has reflected national averages, said Betsy Young, supervisor of student services for the Loudoun County public school system, who applied for the grant. She said most data on drug use come from a 2001 county survey, and officials eagerly await a new survey this summer for more up-to-date information.
The federal agencies awarded the grant to Loudoun -- a more affluent community than many others given money -- because the high mobility of the population is considered a major risk factor for youth, Young said. The same growth that brings thousands of people to the county each year means neighbors are often strangers and children change schools frequently. Research has proven that teenagers who feel less attachment to their community are more likely to turn to drugs and violence.
"If you grew up in a small community where everybody knew everybody, chances are your neighbor down the street knew your parents, had known them for 20 years," Young said. If neighbors had worries about local kids, they knew who to call. "In these new communities, neighbors [don't] necessarily know neighbors," she said.
The coalitions have been formed to help forge those bonds, Chapple said. The Leesburg group, for instance, held a Battle of the Bands competition this year. In between performances, the audience heard from people struggling with addiction and recovery.
In addition to L.U.C.Y., there is a western Loudoun group called C.O.P.E. (Community Organization for Prevention Education), one in the Ashburn area known as C.A.R.E.Y. (Combining Area Resources to Empower Youth), and S.E.L.F. (Supporting Eastern Loudoun's Families), based in Sterling.
Sharon McGroder, the co-chair of the Sterling group, said she hopes the coalitions will put parents in touch with community groups that have expertise on youth and drugs, including the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office and county agencies.
"Everybody has got a role to play," she said. "We need to pull together and draw on all the assets."
McGroder attended a meeting in Fairfax County of a similar community coalition where parents had the opportunity to question a panel of teenagers about the destructive behaviors they see among their peers. She said the event opened some eyes, and S.E.L.F. might replicate it in Loudoun. The group is also thinking about sponsoring a teenage book club.
"People are wringing their hands and saying what can we do," she said. "Well, there's a coalition, come see what you can do. Every little bit helps."
Some meetings turn into discussions on parenting techniques, Chapple said. The group discusses ways to stop other parents from allowing alcohol at parties and how far parents should go to prevent teenagers from gathering without supervision.
She said the coalitions could be a real force for change if parents get involved. They could lobby for a teenage recreation center or more services for young drug addicts and urge area businesses to move the most commonly abused medications behind the counter, where they would be more difficult for teenagers to obtain.
"If the coalition can help with prevention, then we're doing miracles," she said.