James Lavender knows better. The superintendent of Kingsway Regional School District, Lavender knows that these days, it’s impossible to ignore the accounts, media stories, first-hand witnesses and loud alarms from community leaders about a growing nationwide crisis of drug abuse.
He also knows that, while impossible to ignore, it is, perversely, hard to imagine such a crisis hitting your neighborhood. But Lavender knows better; knows that illicit drug use will likely affect the students under his care directly or indirectly. He knows from experience.
In only six years, 2011 to 2017, the high school has lost two students to suspected overdoses of drugs. Lavender and school staff helped the student body navigate the grief and horror of deaths seen as senseless and set up counseling sessions for students needing to understand and mourn. He has written poignant letters to parents alerting them to the potential emotional landmines the loss of a classmate might bring to their children.
“Regardless of the cause of death, it’s heartbreaking to lose a student,” Lavender said. “It’s very painful and it’s very sad.”
It is also, he determined, a reason for action. The death this spring of a student, “eliminated any doubt in my mind that we needed to initiate a preventive program” regarding drug use, he said. The loss “had a profound impact on the student body and staff, as had every student we’ve lost. And on me, personally,” he added. “I identified more than (previously) because this was a child close to my own daughter’s age.”
The superintendent is not the only authority facing a possibility of a worsening drug crisis. According to releases from the state medical examiner’s office, about 1,900 citizens of New Jersey died last year from a drug overdose, up from 1,587 in 2015.
State tallies implicate heroin and its vastly more potent successor, fentanyl, with a large portion of the deaths. The state, like the country, is finding more and more heroin that has been laced with fentanyl, a cheaper drug. Some heroin sold on the streets is possibly pure fentanyl, a tiny amount of which can kill quickly.
The increased prevalence of opioid drugs such as heroin, prescription pain killers, and fentanyl worries Detective Chris Beckett of the Woolwich Police Department, which also covers Swedesboro. “Yes,” said the detective, asked if he’s seen an increase in drug use in the area. “I am seeing it, but not for any influx of drug dealers or gangs, but just due to the increasing general population in this area.”
He said the patrols mainly see marijuana, “but now, more and more, it’s heroin and laced heroin. In the summer, it’s party drugs like cocaine and ecstasy. Summer’s always our busy time.”
Beckett said this area is largely supplied through dealers in Camden and Philadelphia, and residents travel there to obtain drugs. “In a lot of those instances, when you go for heroin, you’re sick from (cravings). So they take the drug before they leave for home.”
That resident, driving under the influence, often becomes the suspect arrested for disorderly crimes, Beckett said. “Those are crimes that are misdemeanors, but they are a marker for drug use,” which is commonly the cause for the crime, he said.
“Disorderly crimes have gradually increased,” Beckett added. “In 2011 we had 165 disorderly arrests. In 2016, there were 231.”
Beckett said an identifiable cause of increased opioid use is the lax prescription drug market. When pain-killer drugs are needed, some users become addicted. Once the drugs are unavailable, the user seeks a similar substitute, which is often heroin.
Woolwich Police now offer the community a Drop Box program through which, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. any day of the year, a person can anonymously get rid of prescription drugs they no longer need. It could be a life-saver, Beckett, who co-ordinates the program, explained. “This means those drugs are not in the house, tempting to be stolen or for a child to find.”
The program, begun three years ago, saw 40 pounds dropped off the first year. That number is correct. Forty pounds of drugs that will never be a danger to anyone.
The drugs are taken to the federal drug enforcement administration (DEA) for disposal. This year, Beckett took about 150 pounds to the DEA. “Can you believe it?” he asked, astounded.
The discarded drugs, of course, are from people who no longer need them. The people addicted to narcotics after using prescription painkillers, are part of a cohort fueling increased heroin use. The heroin may be laced with fentanyl, and just handling such a drug is dangerous to police officers at the scene of an overdose.
Beckett said Woolwich police are trained in recognizing and handling drugs and now are carrying a potent antidote for life-saving treatment of overdoses, the drug Narcan, or naxolone. It neutralizes, temporarily, the effects of opioids on the body, often saving a life until the paramedics arrive.
Narcan, an important tool in the fight against overdoses, is also part of Lavender’s arsenal. The high school nurse is trained in its use and is called should an overdose at school or any school function be suspected.
Local elementary schools, according to Superintendents Dr. Kristin O’Neil of Swedesboro/Woolwich district and Dr. James Lynch of East Greenwich district, are not experiencing problems with drug use among students and thus have no official programs to intervene. Woolwich Police Department, however, has promoted the LEAD program to educate students in all grades.
Law Enforcement Against Drugs, said Det. Beckett, partners with schools for visits by local law officers on a random basis. The officers speak to classes, patrol halls and grounds and become a trusted presence, he said. “No school has turned us down for this program.”
Kingsway High School also welcomes police officers but with an age group known for experimentation, the school is doing more to protect its students. Lavender, recognizing drug use as, “a reality we all have to deal with as a society, yet we don’t want to talk about it,” this year initiated a program designed in part to foster discussion.
The school has begun random urinalysis drug testing. Parents are required to sign a consent to drug testing for students participating in school activities and privileges such as athletics and using the parking lot. The tests pick up a number of drugs, including marijuana, alcohol, and opiates. Information on the school website is extensive and in-depth.
So far, “No parents have refused,” Lavender said. “We have had a lot of questions and some good dialogue. We have been overwhelmed with support from parents.”
The random testing serves to notify the school and parents should a child be found at risk for drug abuse, he said. Police are not notified of results, but school officials and parents can intervene.
The threat of a random test can be a legitimate reason for students to resist peer pressure to take illicit substances. “It’s not that easy for a child to just say ‘No’ when peer pressure, social websites, TV, and media work against the message. So random testing is also a prevention measure,” Lavender said. “Before, we only tested when there was a suspicion.”
The superintendent said he believes students today are all vulnerable to drugs. “In my role as a superintendent, I find how much children are not immune to the pressures they face … and our job is to prepare them and protect them from these exposures. We have to give them the support they need. We’re finding our kids are growing up a lot faster than my generation. They are exposed to a lot of information than before but are not mature enough to filter or deal with it.”
That onslaught of information, mostly due to technology, Lavender said, has driven anxiety levels in students up, “because they can’t get away from the world. They are too connected.”
Seeing that, he promoted a program at Kingsway to show kids methods to cope with overload. Called Mindfulness, the program teaches students in various ways how to relax, to become aware of their surroundings, of options, and more. Staff is also welcome to partake of the training, Lavender said.
The immediate goal is to show students they can, indeed, say “No” to drugs or to any behavior that makes them uncomfortable. Through music, rhythm, even coloring and art, the program is designed to increase critical thinking, confidence and other coping mechanisms.
Its catchy phrase, “Just Breathe” is prominent, along with the red Kingsway dragon, on a web newsletter about the program. Find it on the Kingsway web site. The school “is one of a very few doing this,” Dr. Lavender said.
Kingsway’s effort to intervene before a potential drug crisis invades its community of students is a work in progress infused with science and hope. “The challenge,” Lavender said, “is to keep up with the dangers of what students are exposed to. We are a healthy high school district.”
The key to maintaining that health is watchfulness and action, he suggested. “What we as parents and administrators and teachers can do is provide knowledge and intervention to catch and solve problems before a kid is in trouble.” Heavy emphasis on “before.”
by Jean Redstone