Cass Junior School High held a drug education seminar for its eighth-graders Friday featuring a speaker from the Robert Crown Center.
“Does anyone know the significance of today’s date—4/20?” health educator Rosanne Tenuta asked.
“It’s National Weed Day,” one student quickly—and accurately—replied.
Another student immediately interjected.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “I thought today was when the Russians entered Berlin during World War II.”
Two kids, virtually the same age had vastly different interpretations of the term 4/20, colored by what they’ve learned during their short lives.
At 13, kids teeter on the edge of innocence. Some know very little about the seedier aspects of life. Some know—or think they know—much more.
But sometimes things happen in a community that make it necessary for educators to break into the bubble of innocence.
Cass Principal Christine Marcinkewicz faced that reality a little more than a week ago when the whispered rumors started around Darien.
The details are sketchy, but this much we know: Two young adults with local ties, a boy in his late teens and a woman in her early 20s, died in separate incidents that Darien police said are suspected heroin overdoses. The deaths happened within 10 days of one another. Both graduated from Cass and later Hinsdale South. Police said one died in Oak Park, while the other died in an unincorporated area of DuPage County.
Cass students, though many years removed from the two people who died, started coming to school with questions about heroin. Within days, the school secured the Robert Crown Center to present the eighth-graders with a targeted program about the dangers of the drug.
“This was a specific instance where the students honed in on what happened,” Marcinkewicz said. “We wanted to make sure to remind them why it’s so dangerous.”
Suburban law enforcement agencies and schools have in recent years aimed a sharper focus on heroin as an increasing number of young people turn to the drug for a cheap, powerful high.
Heroin use was up 800 percent in DuPage County during 2010, the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group (DuMEG) said during a town forum that year in Hinsdale.
Darien Police Chief Ernest Brown said teens often begin abusing the highly addictive drug to help deal with stress, such as a home life fraught with economic hardship.
“Young people are much more astute now to what’s going on in their families,” he said. “Kids are looking for inappropriate ways to desensitize themselves.”
But the desensitization comes with a price. Heroin, which can be snorted or injected, impacts the brain stem’s ability to regulate breathing. When a person overdoses, breathing slows, and then stops.
While heroin in and of itself can prove deadly, users also gamble with the purity of the drug, Brown said. Dealers often dilute it with anything from powdered baby formula to the drug fentanyl, the latter of which contributed to a string of nationwide heroin-related deaths in 2006.
“People were dropping dead immediately after using it,” Brown said.
Addiction is so fierce, however, Brown said he’s heard stories of people being released from the hospital after an overdose and heading straight back to a dealer for another high.
“I don’t want it to happen here,” he said.
Educating the young
Cass students begin their education on the dangers of drugs in fifth grade through the DARE program, coordinated by Darien Police Officer Nick Skweres. With those 10- and 11-year-old kids, Skweres said he keeps the message simple and broad, focusing on gateway drugs such as alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.
“The harder drugs—I don’t even want to talk about them or introduce them to the kids,” said Skweres, noting that kids who avoid the gateway drugs generally stay away from substances such as cocaine and heroin.
Drug education, however, is a process. Skweres said it’s critical that parents continue at home the lessons he initiates at school.
“We can talk until we’re blue in the face, but if they go home and there’s no support from parents to teach that lifestyle, it’s almost pointless,” he said.
Skweres said he encourages parents to be specific about the dangers of drugs, teaching kids the science behind addiction and abuse.
That’s the approach Marcinkewicz took with the program she scheduled Friday for the oldest students at Cass.
“It’s horrible to say we wanted to frighten children, but (drug abuse) is a big mistake,” she said. “We wanted to bring someone from the outside so they realize this is a big deal.”
Tenuta, from the Robert Crown Center, spoke to the entire eighth-grade class about the physiological effects of drug abuse, from the way methamphetamine can alter a person’s appearance to how heroin depresses the nervous system.
“What you do now can change your brain for the rest of your life,” she said.
The brain is programmed as it develops from childhood and all the way through a person’s early 20s, she said, building circuits that help students learn and remember things as adults.
In the wake of the recent tragedies, this school is working to wire its students’ brains with lessons that will keep them healthy for the rest of their lives.