Over three days in 2011, two Neuqua Valley High School students died of heroin and other drug overdoses. Six months later, a third followed, again from heroin. “We knew we needed to do something, and we knew we needed to do it right,” said school social worker Pam Witt.
The school’s four social workers got together, with the support of their principal, and reached out to students. “What will you actually listen to?” they asked. “What won’t you roll your eyes at?” Through these conversations, and with the help of local health educators and advocates, they developed a powerful student-led “Confront the Elephant,” heroin prevention program at Neuqua Valley, a suburban Chicago high school that isn’t at all exceptional in its problem with drugs but is pretty special in the way its staff and students have confronted that issue.
“We got ahead of the curve,” Witt said.
‘They Are All the Kids You Meet in the Classrooms of America’
In February, 14-year-old Megan Koscinski died near a pile of heroin baggies in a suburban Connecticut home. Last summer, it was 16-year-old Emylee Lonczak, found dead in a wealthy Virginia neighborhood, after one acquaintance shot heroin into her arm and another dragged her body through the door. Lonczak’s soccer coach told the Washington Post that she was a shy girl, almost timid, “but always trying to get into the game.”
Nationwide, three out of 100 high-school students reported using heroin in 2011, according to a federal survey. But today, in towns across America, those numbers seem increasingly quaint. This month, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder called heroin an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” and committed U.S. Justice Department resources to a combination of enforcement and treatment programs. Holder noted that heroin-related deaths are up 400 percent in some areas.
Fueling that rapid increase is the rising production and availability of new forms of Mexican heroin that don’t need to be injected, that cost as little as $10 for a powder-filled pill, and are highly addictive. For many heroin users, this drug is the end of the line: They started out using the kinds of painkillers commonly found in medicine cabinets (and often perceived as “safe” because they’re prescribed by doctors) and then switched to heroin when it was offered as a much cheaper, but equally effective way to feed their opiate addiction.
“The first time I tried heroin… I’d probably say sometime during my sophomore year,” recounts a high-school student in a documentary film, called “Neuqua on Drugs,” made last year by Chicago-area teens. “I snorted like some Adderall and they were like if you can snort Adderall you can snort this. It’s basically like the same thing.”
These are rich kids, and not-so-rich kids. They are high-achieving kids, and low-achieving kids. They come from good families and not-so-good families, says Rob Goldman, a humanities professor at Suffolk Community College in New York, and founder of the Just Like Me drug prevention project. They are all the kids you meet in the classrooms of America. And, even if they’re aware of the likely consequences, said Goldman, “They think, ‘It’ll never be me.’”
Video: Just Like Me
About four years ago, a grandfather and local CEO walked into Chicago’s Robert Crown Center for Health Education and said he wanted to do something about heroin. His grandson, a young computer programmer, had recently overdosed and died.
“We were a little surprised, thinking ‘heroin? Where did that come from?’” recalls Kris Adzia, a program director at Robert Crown. The center’s first step was partnering with Chicago’s Roosevelt University to research the scope of the problem. What they found was startling:
- One third of local users began using heroin in high school; 20 percent at age 15;
- All of them first used heroin by “sniffing” or “snorting” it, and many said they thought heroin was “less addictive” that way. (Wrong!)
- The majority had no education about drugs or drug addiction, and many said they never would have tried heroin or other opiates if they had known how easily and quickly they would get addicted.
“There were lots of gaps in knowledge among kids, in what they knew about heroin and what they knew about addiction,” said Adzia.
Robert Crown stepped into that gap in 2012 with a school-based prevention program, developed alongside educators, social workers, parents, and other community members, and funded partly by that grandfather who wanted to do something about heroin. Since then, more than 1,500 teachers and education support professionals have been trained by Robert Crown on the effects of heroin and opiates on the brain, and also the use of their interactive lesson plans and other materials. More than 7,000 students at 11 Chicago-area middle and high schools have been through the program.
“We know how much material teachers have to cover—and everything is a priority, right?” said Adzia. “So we created lessons and materials that could be folded into what they might already be doing.”
Among the results:
- 87 percent of students learned that snorting heroin leads to addiction (up from 65 percent.)
- 92 percent of school staff said they were confident or very confident in their knowledge of heroin’s effects (up from 28 percent.)
Students Teaching Students
At Neuqua Valley, it’s actually seniors who teach the Robert Crown lessons to freshmen. Trained by Robert Crown facilitators, the seniors provide feedback to program developers on what parts feel effective from their own teenage perspective. But most important, said Witt, the older students have the trust and confidence of their younger peers on the subject of drug use. “Students teaching other students is the most effective strategy,” promised Witt.
Meanwhile, Neuqua Valley has its seniors develop and lead its own “Confront the Elephant” heroin prevention program. (The elephant in the room is heroin.) There are no teachers or administrators on stage. And there’s no eye-rolling in the teenage audience, either. Former heroin users, sometimes Neuqua Valley students, as well as the mother and sister of one of those 2011 heroin victims, speak in small groups to their freshman peers. “Loud and clear, they told us they wanted to hear from people in recovery, as close in age as possible to them. They didn’t want to hear from administrators. They didn’t want to watch a PowerPoint. So we said, ‘Okay!’”
“We won’t even let the principal get on stage,” said Witt. “It’s just them, and it’s just phenomenally good.”
The school also has a blue-ribbon health program for sophomores, which includes several weeks of drug-prevention lessons and activities. And it provides periodic training and information to parents, as well.
Witt remembers a few years ago a couple of juniors telling her about how they bought heroin in Chicago. “These little girls who look like cheerleaders, they’d tell me how they’d get into a car, drive down I-290, exit at the K streets and pull into an alley. They’d park, and sooner or later, somebody would knock on their car window. They’d hand over $100 bucks, and they’d get 12 bags of heroin.
“It was crazy. It was scary. It was so, so scary.”
Today, three years after she and her colleagues confronted the elephant, Witt doesn’t hear so many of those stories. Today, the guy banging at the door, demanding the attention of her students is more likely to be an advocate for drug prevention. And they are listening.