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With steroid use on the rise, classroom educators find themselves on less-than-familiar ground.

By Cynthia Kopkowski

When six Connecticut high school students, including three football players from the state championship team, were caught with steroids two years ago, it wasn’t a coach or trainer who made the discovery. It was a classroom teacher. Suspecting that pills inside a Rolaids container they were passing around weren’t for indigestion, she went to the principal. Under questioning, the boys admitted they were taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Steroid use among high school students has doubled since the early 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a recent CDC survey, nearly 850,000 high school students admitted using the drugs. The arrest of the Connecticut students came one month after nine players on one high school football team in Texas confessed to using steroids. Experts say that pressure on high school athletes is escalating, with coaches, parents, and the athletes themselves hungry for attention-grabbing game stats, championships, and scholarships.

But here’s what makes this a particularly insidious drug for teachers and education support professionals to detect: the most common signs that a student is using steroids are mood swings, acne, physical changes, and sudden, unexplained aggressive behavior. Sound like any of the high school students you know?

Linn Goldberg, founder of two gender-specific steroid-prevention programs used in 30 states, says that educators should look for behavioral and physical signs that are more intense than in the typical teenager. Involve school counselors and administrators if you suspect steroid use. Be aware, too, that it’s not just athletes at risk. Experts say a growing number of girls are using the drugs in the hopes of losing body fat.

Perhaps most important, says Tom Horn, the athletic director of George Mason High School in Falls Church, Virginia, is making periodic trips to your school’s coaches’ office, where you’ll find valuable partners. “We need to work to close that gap between coaches and teachers,” Horn says. “Information shared will benefit the students tremendously.”

For example, a student suddenly sleeping in class more, pounding the desk when getting a bad grade, and not turning in homework may also be fighting with teammates in the locker room or rapidly bulking up. Or perhaps the student recently lost a starting position and that’s made him or her moody. Either way, coaches and teachers need to work together to get a clear picture of what’s happening, Horn says.

State legislators are also getting in the prevention and detection game: Virginia, New Jersey, California, Illinois, and Texas have all passed laws concerning high school steroid use. Virginia’s legislation requires two-year athletic ineligibility for any student found using the drug. Yet a greater number of states continue to shy away from such legislation, citing the cost of screening, which can be as much as $100 per test.

The stakes are high at a school like George Mason, where 450 of the 600 students are athletes. With prevention in mind, Horn’s school began using Goldberg’s ATLAS and ATHENA programs this year, making it a “Sports Illustrated school” where researchers closely monitor progress. As a former Division III football player, Horn was faced regularly with the temptation of steroid use in college and knows the pressure student athletes feel.

“It’s not only in their own minds,” he says. “There is pressure from adults to maximize their potential, starting at a young age.” And once one student travels that road, they’re likely to be followed. “It’s one of those viral activities,” he says. “If you have one steroid user, you’re likely to have a few.”

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Steroids 101

Nicknames: ‘roids, juice, hype, pump

Steroid types: Anabolic steroids are taken to increase body mass. But prescription corticosteroids are used legitimately to treat common medical conditions such as asthma and arthritis and don’t increase body mass.

How they’re taken: Pills, liquid injected with a needle

Physical side effects: Severe acne, nausea and vomiting, headaches, aching joints, muscle cramps, high blood pressure, diarrhea, baldness. Also in females: increase in facial and body hair, deepened voice, reduced breast size.

Emotional side effects: increased aggression, severe mood swings, hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety and panic attacks, depression.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics