Step One is admitting you have a problem." So goes the old adage of many 12-step programs, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Narcotics Anonymous. Translation: You can't take action against chemical dependency unless you first admit you're chemically dependent.
For last week's cover story, "Heroin: It's Cheap, It's Deadly, and Teens Think It's No Big Deal," Gambit contacted more than 20 local high schools to discuss their drug abuse policies in light of recent overdose deaths involving heroin, which is making a comeback in a cheaper and more lethal form — among teens. We contacted public, private and Catholic high schools, asking the same questions: Were they aware of any heroin use by students? How many drug-related expulsions had they made in the last year? What policies and programs did they have in place concerning student drug abuse?
Many of the answers were disheartening — because many of the schools simply refused to discuss the issue. Even some schools that had posted written drug policies on their websites declined to discuss specifics on the record. If the schools' intentions were not to alarm parents, they should have taken the opposite approach. Parents know their teenagers are exposed to drugs, in and out of school settings, and they should expect schools to have a forthright, explicit approach to the topic. Any school that's reluctant to discuss its drug abuse policies should set off alarm bells among parents.
Young people have experimented with drugs and alcohol for generations, and heroin isn't new to the drug scene. What is new is its availability and lethality. According to local drug experts and criminologists, today's kids aren't taking the old needle-and-spoon route to the drug; they're snorting it or smoking it, often in conjunction with prescription medications. Worse yet, a heroin high has become cheaper than one from pot or cocaine. A $20 "20-bag" is enough to get a new user loaded for days. And whether it's snorted or injected, heroin still ranks among the most addictive street drugs out there — and it's often more potent than other illegal drugs. In a five-week period in 2008, heroin killed seven New Orleanians between the ages of 16 and 27, including a Lusher High School student named Maddy Prevost.
Lusher principal Kathy Reidlinger spoke to us about the school's proactive educational efforts, as did Dr. Timothy Rusniak of Benjamin Franklin High School. Sadly, those were the only two public schools willing to discuss the subject openly. A few private schools spoke on the record, but elsewhere the silence was deafening. The Orleans Parish School Board and the Algiers Charter Schools Association declined to speak about their drug policies, programs and deterrents. Area Catholic high schools all but ignored our inquiries. Most wouldn't even respond anonymously to the same questions from the local archdiocese on our behalf — despite a personal request to do so from Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Eleven schools did not even return our calls.
Worst of all, several nonpublic schools admitted privately that they feared discussing their drug policies and programs because of how they might be perceived in the highly competitive local secondary school market. In other words, they were more concerned about their image (i.e., not being seen as "the drug school") than they were about the welfare of their students. That's pathetic — and irresponsible. It reminds us of the early days of AIDS, when squeamishness about openly discussing sexual activity and condom use trumped public health concerns and unnecessarily exposed more people to HIV.
Robyn Dewhirst, director of assessment and early intervention at the Council of Alcohol and Drug Abuse for Greater New Orleans, isn't squeamish at all about discussing the resurgence of heroin. Here's her message to parents: "Kids aren't as afraid of heroin as they once were. The impression is that smoking it is no big deal, and the fear of becoming a proverbial junkie is just not there."
Is that clear enough?
Smack is back, folks. Young people know it. Parents know that drugs wax and wane in popularity, but they never completely go away. The best weapon against drugs is education.
Here's a news flash for the principals and school boards who won't discuss their drug policies and programs: You have a problem. Step One is admitting it.