Hilton Head Island High School is searching students and checking their hall passes more closely after several became ill after taking a combination of a prescription drug and a cold-and-cough medicine.
The drugs are Xanax and Coricidin, according to school principal Amanda O'Nan. The effects of taking them in combination -- sometimes causing students to fall into a deep sleep -- are "very, very scary," she said.
O'Nan could not say Friday how many students might have been part of the drug use but "since Jan. 22, we have had more instances than normal, especially around these two drugs. Because of the events being so close in proximity and happening with these pills, we are beginning to look into things deeper."
Since Jan. 22, eight drug-related incidents have resulted in disciplinary action, O'Nan said, and 911 has been called twice in the past week because of drug problems.
The Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division has responded to calls at the high school five times since Dec. 1 -- though the exact reasons for the call were not available -- division spokeswoman Joheida Fister said.
Administrators and teachers have found that some students are taking three times the recommended amount of both drugs, and, in some cases, even more.
The effects can be serious and dangerous, especially with Xanax, a narcotic used to manage anxiety, according to David Burke, a pharmacist and co-owner of Burke's Main Street Pharmacy on the island. The pill is a depressant that slows the central nervous system, he said.
"So if you are not used to a depressant like that or your brain doesn't require it and you take too much, you could easily go to sleep and never wake up," Burke said. "It says to the brain, 'Hey, let's shut down.' "
Coricidin, or "Triple C," is an over-the-counter cold-and-cough medicine.
Students are purchasing both drugs from peers for between $1 to $10, school social worker Jodi Tanner said in a letter sent home to parents Tuesday.
"These problems are not tied to one clique -- these kids are all grade levels, kids in athletics and other extracurriculars, kids of all ethnicities, students who are rich and poor, students who make good and bad grades," O'Nan said. "It crosses all scopes and boundaries."
Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster said there have been instances of drug abuse at all the district's high schools, but Hilton Head High has had an unusually high number recently.
As a result, the high school is being more vigilant. O'Nan said.
Administrators have met with faculty to make them aware of the terms students sometimes use to identify the drugs, as well as symptoms typical for someone under their influence.
Those symptoms include restlessness, lethargy and a loss of motor-control skills. Faculty members are required to report students exhibiting these behaviors to administrators.
The school has closed an isolated bathroom rumored to be the place where drug sales occurred.
Students are no longer allowed to bring liquids in opaque containers or unsealed water bottles to school, according to O'Nan. Students are thought to mix the drugs with water and sip them throughout the day.
Beginning next week, the school will make announcements every morning about the negative effects of the drugs and conduct meetings with each grade to explain the situation at the school. An anonymous tip line also will be set up.
Students caught under the influence face an eight-day suspension, a hearing to recommend expulsion and enrollment in an intervention program.
If a student is found to be under the influence, a search of their person and belongings might be warranted, O'Nan said. The number of searches have increased since Jan. 22.
In the past week alone, O'Nan said, some 20 students have been searched after administrators either received a tip or suspected the student was high.
"I have been very up front with the students that I think there is a problem and we are on our toes and my door is open, but I also have been clear about the consequences, and we are not going to tolerate this behavior in our building," O'Nan said. "I don't want to be planning a funeral for these students; I want to be planning enriching activities for them to do."
She said some students are frustrated by the vigilance, and some parents have called the response too extreme, O'Nan said.
Hilton Head High parent Sam Martin said those concerns were expressed at a meeting with parents Thursday night.
"It's a legitimate argument that, 'Why do all students have to pay the price of what these few kids are doing and have the privileges taken away?' " Martin said. "Those are valid points.
"But ultimately, it all came back to this (being) something we need to address diligently."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.