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Meeting opens dialogue to tackle community drug challenge

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, approximately 20 people gathered in CVA’s Large Group Instruction room to begin a conversation about drugs in the community. The group included about a dozen law enforcement, medical and drug treatment personnel and 10 school representatives. Several were also parents or grandparents of Central Valley students.

Despite the lighter-than-hoped for attendance, Central Valley Superintendent Rich Hughes said the meeting was an important first step.

“This is a long overdue conversation. What we see in schools is a reflection of what is in our communities. As educators and parents, we cannot hide our heads in the sand, believing these things aren’t on our streets, in our schools or even in our families,” he said.

He said he expects this meeting to be the first of many, exploring ways to tackle the drug problem.

“We will continue to provide our Thunders’ parents with information and resources to help them make the best choices for themselves and their children. If we, as educators, fail to share what we learn we place our students at unnecessary risk,” he said.

Building on Tuesday’s meeting, he foresees conversations on a variety of topics covering everything from how to help with homework to how to fill out college financial aid forms.

The meeting

Central Valley Superintendent Rich Hughes opened the meeting, saying, “Tonight’s meeting is more than just about cocaine on a bus.”

He went on to explain his deep desire to wrestle with community drug use goes back to his former position in Delhi. Alex, one of his students, had hinted of a prescription drug problem among teens, but Dr. Hughes never dreamed that Alex was one of those students struggling. That realization became painfully evident when Alex died of a drug overdose. Since Dr. Hughes has committed to combat illicit and illegal drug use.

The evening was broken into three parts: a focus on drug awareness and education, law enforcement’s perspective on the scope of the problem, and local treatment option.

Awareness and Education

Maureen Petrie, Director of Prevention Education with the Herkimer County Prevention Council, discussed the various drugs, the risks associated with each drug, and the use of those drugs among teens.

She offered common sense advice to fight drug use, “Parents are the biggest deterrent to your kids using drugs or alcohol. Parents are the most powerful influence in a child’s life.”

According to the Teen Assessment Project (TAP), teen drug use in Herkimer County declined between 2001 and 2013. TAP surveys seventh, ninth and eleventh graders in all 11 Herkimer County Schools. Cornell University and the Prevention Council review the responses and compile the data. Among the findings:

  • Alcohol
    • Still the most abused drug among teens.
    • Reported use has declined from 61 percent in 2001 to 40 percent in 2014.
    • Binge drinking (five or more drinks for boys, four or more for girls) also declined from 27.6 percent to 11 percent over the same time.
    • Underage drinkers get their alcohol from legal aged, non-parent buyers (35 percent), consensually from parents and friends’ parents (21 percent), steal it from parents and friends’ parents (40 percent), and using false identification (2 percent).
  • Marijuana
    • Use declined from 33 percent in 2001 to 24 percent in 2014.
    • Today’s marijuana is more potent. In 1978, marijuana contained approximately 2 percent THC (the “high causing” chemical). Today, THC levels range between 26 and 46 percent, making it far more dangerous than parents “remember.”
  • Prescription Drugs
    • Every day, 2,500 U.S. teens try prescription drugs for the first time.
    • Opioid overdose is the #1 cause of teen death (greater than car accidents and gun homicides).
    • 13 percent of eleventh graders and 6 percent of ninth graders report taking someone else’s prescription drug.
  • Heroin
    • Prescription painkillers (hydrocodone, Oxycontin, etc.) have become gateway drugs to heroin.
    • The face of the heroin addict has changed. Heroin has spread into every demographic group—men, women, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, etc.
  • Tobacco
    • Smoking declined from 42 percent in 1997 to 18 percent in 2013.
    • The local use of snuff/chew is higher than the national average.
  • Synthetics
    • Synthetics (bath salts, Spice, Ecstasy, etc.) use spiked several years ago, but it making a comeback.
    • These drugs were not included in the TAP survey, so there are no use trends.
    • Teens feel synthetics are not as dangerous as other drugs because they’re fake, not the real thing.

Medical personnel and law enforcement share community observations

Heroin use is on the rise said Mohawk Valley Ambulance Corps EMT Mike Knapp.

“We get 10-17 wake-up calls each month,” he said.

Wake-up calls are emergency response calls for individuals who have stopped breathing. Emergency responders intravenously administer Narcan, which blocks the heroin from reaching the body’s receptor sites. The age range of patients has been 15-60 years.

A big part of the problem he said is that heroin is accessible and cheap. One pain medication pill can cost as much as $8-10. Three doses of heroin is $10 and is a much stronger drug. As a result, the rate of heroin hospitalizations is almost doubling every year.

MOVAC Chief Brad Vrooman said that MOVAC is working with Central Valley to train school staff to administer Narcan in hopes of avoiding a school tragedy. As soon as the board of education establishes a policy authorizing the plan, MOVAC will begin delivering Narcan kits and training key staff in their proper use. He said his group’s efforts were received at Central Valley with open arms.

Mohawk Police Chief Joseph Malone reassured attendees that most heroin use in the community seems to be limited to those college age and older. Teens are most often found with marijuana, synthetics and prescription pills. Among those with drug problems, he said that 75 percent have little or no parental involvement in their lives or have parents who model or openly condone drug use.

“That still leaves 25 percent of students with problems coming from what we think of as stable homes, from families thinking this could never happen to them,” Dr. Hughes later said.

To put the issue of prescription drugs in perspective, Ilion Police Captain Laurie DeVaul described the results of the village’s participation in the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. Residents dropped off enough unused prescription medication at the police station to fill 13 large boxes weighing more than a couple of hundred pounds.

She stressed, however, “We have few problems at school; most are great kids. The school is wonderful. We have a great relationship.”

Ilion Police Investigator Jeremiah Sninchak warned heroin use in the community is real. He said the spike in heroin use is driving increases in breaking and entering, robberies, and hepatitis.

Treatment

Despite the best efforts of parents, educators, and law enforcement, some teens will end up with a drug problem. That is where Herkimer’s Beacon Center comes in.

Clinical Supervisor Helen Burdick said the center provides teens 13-17 with a counseling group designed to meet their specific needs. Teens discuss how they became addicted and their struggles becoming clean. They wrestle with family issues, peer pressure, and personal problems. The program helps young adults to learn about their alcohol or other drug use, how to have lifestyles that are free from all mood-altering substances, how to deal with peer pressure and improve self esteem, and how to have fun without the use of alcohol or other drugs.

Ms. Burdick said five years ago, the majority of teens were fighting alcohol and marijuana. Two years ago, that switched to prescription medications.

Moving forward

Also attending were Ilion Trustee Bridget McKinley, an Advanced Practice Nurse and Janice Burling, Central District Drug Awareness and Education Chairperson for the Ilion Elks Lodge. They echoed the need for parent involvement and better education.

Dr. Hughes closed by thanking everyone for the participation. He encouraged everyone to continue their efforts to keep children safe.