Drug task force educates parents at Unionville High School
Jacquelene Simon Zwaan talks about the drug overdose of her son, R.J., in 2008.
By John Chambless
Flanking the stage at Unionville High School on Oct. 15 were photos of teens. There were too many of them, and their ages were too young.
Joshua Huston was 16.
Hannah Bruch was 14.
Colby Crutchfield was 13.
They were all from Chester, Delaware or Montgomery counties, and they all died from drug overdoses. During a program for parents put on by the NOPE Task Force on Wednesday evening, parents learned about the grim toll that prescription drug abuse is taking on the nation's teens. NOPE (Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education) is a Florida-based non-profit program that recently opened chapters in southeastern Pennsylvania. Programs were presented to students at Patton Middle School and Unionville High School on Oct. 14 and 15, and on Wednesday evening, it was a time for parents to learn from a panel of experts.
District superintendent John Sanville opened the evening. "This is a topic that keeps me up at night," he told the audience. "I think about our kids and I think about the risky behaviors they may be involved in. This is not just a family issue, it's not just a school issue, this is an us issue."
Chuck Gaza, the chief of staff of the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Office, is also a parent in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District. He told the audience, "This is an epidemic in the entire country, and it's finding a place here in Chester County. More often than not, parents end up being their child's first drug dealer."
Gaza asked how many parents had gotten a prescription for 20 oxycodone pills after surgery, used only a couple, and then stashed the rest in the medicine cabinet or a closet at home. "Your children know where those drugs are," he said. "It only takes one pill, one time, in a young adolescent to cause them to stop breathing.
"Look at these pictures up here on the stage," Gaza said. "Heroin does not care how rich you are, how educated you are, or what school you go to. Heroin is not the drug of inner-city bums and junkies, sleeping on the street. The rich and affluent are equally susceptible to this drug."
The statistics are shocking. Every day, 2,000 teens in the United States try prescription drugs to get high for the first time. About 60 percent of them are younger than 15. Seventy percent of them got the pills from their family or friends. The accessibility of prescription drugs makes experimentation easy, and mixing pills can be a deadly game. Combining alcohol with prescription drugs can be instantly fatal. If a teen overdoses at a party or with other teens, bystanders might not notify parents or call 911 because they are afraid of being caught themselves. Part of the NOPE program stresses that calling 911 can save a life.
Megan Sensenig, who works with Juvenile Probation in Chester County, detailed the stories of some of the teens in the photos: Brothers Jesse and Dustin Leonard died within three weeks of each other; Joshua Huston overdosed on his mother's birthday; Alan Hoffman and Steven Draxler were among 21 teens who took pills at a party, but they never woke up; Hannah Bruch took a form of ecstasy called Molly at a concert and died.
Taking her turn at the podium next to a photo of her son, Jacquelene Simon Zwaan read from her notes about how R.J., "a gifted, curious and funny boy" and a student at Avon Grove High School, died of a drug overdose at the age of 17. During her portion of the program, images of R.J. as a boy and a young teen were shown on the screen above her.
"R.J. always said he'd live with me forever," she concluded. "He will. Not in my house, but in my heart."
She returned to her seat and stared at the floor as the audience sat in silence.
Sgt. Leo Kennedy of the Westtown-East Goshen Police Department confided that his nine-year addiction prior to becoming an officer began when he was 14, stealing sips from his father's liquor cabinet. That led to an addiction to prescription pills and alcohol that landed Kennedy in rehab. "My blood alcohol level was .375," he said. "There is not a reason in the world why I should be alive, talking to you now."
About a third of high school seniors nationwide have smoked pot during the past month, Kennedy said. Today's marijuana is 10 to 20 times more powerful than the 1960s version of the drug. Chasing the high leads teens to try stronger drugs, such as prescription pills. Later, they often turn to the easily affordable heroin.
"You are not immune to this because you live in Unionville," Kennedy said. "Ask questions. Get into your kids' lives."
Chelsey Price of Holcomb Behavioral Health Systems detailed some of the drugs that teens are likely to experiment with, and showed a photo of dozens of kinds of prescription drugs that parents might find hidden in their child's room. Price said the problem of drugged driving is now exceeding the incidence of drunk driving, and that surveys have shown many teens admitted to getting behind the wheel while on drugs. In Chester County, she said, "10 percent of 12th graders have used prescripton narcotics to get high in the past year."
Beth Minge, the director of prevention and education services at Holcomb, has three daughters, who are now 18, 19 and 21. "I know what it's like trying to navigate our kids through this minefield," she said.
Mingie asked how many people in the audience had heroin stored in their homes. "OK, nobody," she said. "Now, how many of you have old prescription narcotics at home? Well, that's the same as heroin. You'd lock up a gun if you had one in your home. Drugs are just as dangerous."
Once a teen tries alcohol, marijuana or pills, "once they get that reaction, it doesn't matter if they're a good kid or a bad kid -- it's just chemistry at that point," Minge said. "You can do everything absolutely right and they can still get addicted. All we can do is put them on the right path.
"You are the biggest influence on your kids," she said. "Talk to each other. This is happening in a lot of families. Now, you know more."
For more information and a list of resources, visit www.nopetaskforce.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.