Officials take new anti-drug message into schools

A tour of high schools in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle last year saw U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II taking his anti-drug message into some strange places.

At Oak Glen High School in Hancock County, he and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Vogrin spoke to fall sports athletes in a plush auditorium, but elsewhere, the conditions weren’t so nice.

“We went to this one place in rural West Virginia where we couldn’t plug in our laptops. It was pouring rain, and the players were covered in mud. We just went into the locker room and talked to them and it was great,” he said. “Just talking to the kids in that setting was extremely effective.”

Ihlenfeld, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, said his “Project Future Two-a-Days” program for high schools has gained urgency with the proliferation of illicit drugs, especially painkillers and heroin.

Demand for one feeds off the other, he said.

“When users can no longer get access to prescription drugs, or can’t afford them, they switch over to heroin, which could be as cheap as $4 per dose,” he said. “(Heroin) provides a better high and a longer-lasting high, depending on the purity level, so you get more bang for your buck with heroin than with prescription opioids.”

Ihlenfeld said his office continues to see signs of heroin’s rise as the drug of choice among dealers and users in the Northern Panhandle -everything from more drug prosecutions to an increase in overdose deaths.

Some studies rank West Virginia as No. 1 in the country for drug overdose deaths. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of overdose deaths in Hancock County rose 700 percent -from zero to 15. Ihlenfeld’s office does not have more current figures.

“We’ve seen purity levels in the 90 percent range in Hancock County,” he said. “The user doesn’t know when he puts it into his vein what the purity level is going to be. All he knows is what the drug dealer has told him. If the purity level is higher than what his body is accustomed to, that can lead to an overdose and sometimes a death.”

While Ihlenfeld’s office does not deal with juveniles, it has prosecuted emancipated teen-agers. “We’re seeing people just past the high school age who are involved in using or dealing heroin or prescription pills,” he said.

Meanwhile, local school districts continue to grapple with how to make drug policies more effective.

In his years with Wellsville Local Schools, Superintendent Richard Bereschik believes the drug problem, especially use of marijuana and alcohol, has gotten better since the 1970s and ’80s.

He attributes that to increased parental awareness, mock drunken-driving crash events and campaigns such as “Those Who Host Lose the Most.”

“I think the message gets home,” he said.

As to harder substances like heroin, Bereschik acknowledged the epidemic that has swept the area in recent years and the risk it poses, although he has no direct experience with Wellsville students using or dealing heroin.

“It seems only a matter of time before the problems on the streets become our problems here,” he said.

At Beaver Local Schools, officials are considering a new drug policy that would apply to students in grades seven to 12 who wish to participate in extracurricular activities. Also, any high school student applying for a parking pass would have to consent to a drug screen. The majority of Beaver Local High School students drive to school, sporting events and other extracurricular activities, said superintendent Kent Polen.

This is the first time such a policy has been instituted at Beaver Local, Polen said. “We had a lot of parents concerned, not because their children were taking drugs, but they wanted to help be proactive and help other children make positive choices in their lives,” he said.

The policy stresses prevention over enforcement. “We don’t want to catch people doing drugs,” Polen said. “We want to deter drug usage. … We wanted to give them a safe way out.”

West Branch Local Schools Superintendent Scott Weingart said he is aware of the increase in substance abuse in Ohio and the tri-state area, but that counselors have not reported an increase in student experimentation with drugs such as heroin.

Weingart said the Beloit district relies on a school resource officer to keep counselors aware of signs of use, trends and local counseling services.

“We have a plan and people in place to get (students) … help and assistance if needed,” he said.

United High School Assistant Principal Frank Baker said the issue has not been evident in the Hanoverton district, but the administration continues to stay alert to the possibility.

“Vigilance is the key for us right now,” he said.

Salem High School Athletic Director Todd Huda said he has not noticed a drug issue with Salem athletes. “Our coaches speak to the kids daily on making the right decisions. A lot of the prevention is done through that,” he said.

Athletes have to sign a code of conduct with the understanding that they may be tested for drugs at any time.

Salem Junior/Senior High School Principal Sean Kirkland said drugs are covered as part of the health curriculum. He said they haven’t seen a heroin problem in the schools, but they’re aware of the devastating effect it’s having in the community.

Educators and administrators work with the police department and bring in drug dogs on occasion to walk the halls and check the parking lot. He said it’s been years since the dogs have hit on anything.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said.

Crestview Schools has recently put a drug-testing policy in place.

Superintendent John Dilling said he thinks there is just so much temptation around students right now from both drugs and alcohol. He sees the drug-testing policy as a way for the board to show students they care enough about them to help them deal with those temptations. The drug-testing policy just gives the student yet another reason to say “No.”

“Students wanting the privilege of driving to school or playing sports can say they don’t want to run that risk,” Dilling said.

Dilling said another concern the board has heard is from local employers, who are having problems finding drug-free employees. The board believes if a student can go through four years of high school with a drug-testing policy in place and a certificate shows they were drug free, it is just another reason for the employer to believe they may be successful in the workplace too.

Lisbon’s drug-testing policy has been in place the past two years, and recently retired Superintendent Don Thompson said it has worked as expected by emphasizing treatment over punishment.

“We are very pleased with the policy and the process and how it’s worked,” he said.

Implemented during the 2012-13 school year, the policy requires all students participating in sports be tested for alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, tobacco and other drugs. Students participating in non-athletic school activities are subject to random testing, with 20 percent chosen during the testing period. Athletes are also to be included in the random testing.

Anyone who tests positive is allowed to continue participating if they enroll in a treatment/counseling program and stay clean. A third violation results in a one-year suspension from participation, and a fourth violation will get the student permanently banned from participating in school activities.

Thompson declined to get into specifics about the number of students who tested positive during the past two school years, other to than to say he was surprised because he thought it would be much higher.

He said the plan was designed to emphasize treatment over punishment and it has worked perfectly in that regard. The costs are less than expected – $5,000 to $6,000 a year – which the district pays.

Columbiana School District Superintendent Don Mook said the goal of their drug testing policy is to allay decision making at the school level to experiment with any kinds of drugs.

“I wouldn’t say that heroin is our focus. Drugs in general are a focus for us. Unfortunately, kids play around with stuff and they get involved in things,” he said. “Part of the implementation of a drug testing program is to do exactly that and give kids a reason to say no and not experiment.”

He believes schools in Columbiana County have dealt with more drug issues now than in recent years.

Mook keeps in regular contact with other administrators regarding their policies, and while heroin isn’t necessarily prevalent in Columbiana, administrators are being proactive.

“We do know that all these low level drugs lead to bigger, faster, stronger, more powerful things. We are trying to do our part, and I think for the most part, families are supportive. If their kids are fooling around with something they want to know about it,” he said.

In 2012 the high school lost a former student to a heroin overdose. Before his death, the 15-year-old left the district to enroll in online classes.

“It doesn’t matter whether they are a Columbiana student, a Crestview student, a Lisbon student, a Youngstown student, as an educator, none of us want to see kids get addicted to drugs. None of us believe that is for the greater good of society in general. It weighs heavy on our hearts when stuff like that happens,” he said.

George Fisk, superintendent for the East Palestine district, said their focus is on leadership skills.

Heroin use does not appear to be evident among students, he indicated.

“We haven’t had any concerns with heroin in our district. It’s not even something I hear mentioned in town as a drug that we are struggling with,” he said.

He believes students have “gotten the message” about being drug free and are doing a “great job” of trying to live a healthy lifestyle.

High school students involved in extracurricular activities are susceptible to random drug testing, and Fisk said there haven’t been “any issues.”