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updated: 3/18/2013 5:17 AM

As suburban heroin crisis rages, education efforts ramp up

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  • Law enforcement officials say they continue to find evidence of a strong presence of heroin in the suburbs through drug seizures and overdoses. These packages of heroin were seized by the DuPage County Sheriff's Drug Unit.

      Law enforcement officials say they continue to find evidence of a strong presence of heroin in the suburbs through drug seizures and overdoses. These packages of heroin were seized by the DuPage County Sheriff's Drug Unit.
    Photo Courtesy of DuPage County Sheriff's Office

  • A screen shot from a computer program that's part of the Robert Crown Center for Education's pilot program to educate students about heroin and addiction. In this story, "Alex," a high school student, is prescribed Vicodin after some dental work and becomes addicted to it. In text messages, it becomes obvious that Alex's friends don't understand addiction. Alex's addiction then escalates to heroin, and viewers can see what happens to him at each stage.

      A screen shot from a computer program that's part of the Robert Crown Center for Education's pilot program to educate students about heroin and addiction. In this story, "Alex," a high school student, is prescribed Vicodin after some dental work and becomes addicted to it. In text messages, it becomes obvious that Alex's friends don't understand addiction. Alex's addiction then escalates to heroin, and viewers can see what happens to him at each stage.
    Photo courtesy of Robert Crown Center for Health E

  • A screen shot from a computer program that's part of the Robert Crown Center for Education's pilot program to educate students about heroin and addiction. In this story, "Alex," a high school student, is prescribed Vicodin after some dental work and becomes addicted to it. In text messages, it becomes obvious that Alex's friends don't understand addiction. Alex's addiction then escalates to heroin, and viewers can see what happens to him at each stage.

      A screen shot from a computer program that's part of the Robert Crown Center for Education's pilot program to educate students about heroin and addiction. In this story, "Alex," a high school student, is prescribed Vicodin after some dental work and becomes addicted to it. In text messages, it becomes obvious that Alex's friends don't understand addiction. Alex's addiction then escalates to heroin, and viewers can see what happens to him at each stage.
    Photo courtesy of Robert Crown Center for Health E

 
 

The suburban heroin epidemic is not showing any signs of a slowdown.

So far this year, there have been at least 12 heroin-related deaths in the suburbs, including that of a 20-year-old Libertyville man, plus numerous heroin overdoses, two of them in Naperville, according to police and coroner officials.

In the past few weeks alone, 11 people were arrested in a heroin bust in DuPage County, a group of suburban law enforcement officials declared the suburban heroin problem "a medical emergency," and a House panel endorsed the creation of a heroin task force in legislation proposed by Round Lake Beach state Rep. Sam Yingling.

Meanwhile, local police, schools and grass-roots groups keep trying to get in front of the problem by organizing education and awareness campaigns in their towns. The next, "Heroin in our Community," is from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Lake Park High School West Campus, 500 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Roselle.

The presentation, open to the public, will be sponsored by four suburban police departments -- Roselle, Hanover Park, Bloomingdale and Itasca. None have held a forum on the topic before.

While they didn't have specific data, police in those communities report seeing more heroin on the streets, making more heroin-related arrests, and responding to more heroin overdoses, said Roselle Police Sgt. John Lawson.

"In my 29 years of law enforcement, when you talked of heroin, it was inner city. When you thought of drugs out of suburbs, you thought marijuana," he said. "Heroin is out here. And we're seeing a lot of it. The trend was marijuana, then cocaine, and now it's heroin."

The forum's goal is to educate potential users and parents about the different types of heroin and what to watch for, and show families in the midst of heroin addiction what support services are available, Lawson said. Several guest speakers are lined up, including DuPage County State's Attorney Bob Berlin, officers from the DuPage County Sheriff's tactical narcotics team, and people in the community who have personally struggled with the drug.

While the heroin death and overdose numbers are discouraging, the message is slowly getting out there, said Kathie Kane-Willis, director of Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. She said pushing forward with education and awareness initiatives is key.

"It's been 10 years (since she started focusing on the issue), and in the beginning it got a lot of media attention but no one wanted to do anything about it," she said. "In Illinois now, I feel like we're finally getting momentum."

One educational effort is the pilot program introduced this year in 11 suburban schools, including Neuqua Valley High School and Crone and Scullen middle schools in Naperville, and Vernon Hills High School and Hawthorn Middle School North and Hawthorn Middle School South in Vernon Hills.

Usually added to health classes, the lesson plans -- designed by the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale -- feature videos, interactive software and other modern teaching tools to educate students on what heroin is and what it does to the brain, as well as what addiction is. There also is a parental involvement component and a panel discussion with young recovering addicts from the community.

In one computer program, the students follow "Alex," a high school student who was prescribed Vicodin after some dental work. Alex becomes addicted to the Vicodin, and in text messages, it becomes obvious that Alex's friends don't understand addiction. Alex's addiction then escalates to heroin, and viewers can see what happens to him as the problem worsens.

The lesson plans are based on the extensive research the Robert Crown Center did on the topic, presented in the 2011 study, "Understanding Suburban Heroin Use."

"It's not the same ol', same ol'," says Robert Crown CEO Kathleen Burke. "Everyone (interviewed in the study) said they wished they'd have known more about the drug. This empowers people with good information."

Since teenagers' brains aren't fully developed -- their decision-making abilities aren't as advanced as their pleasure centers are -- Burke said this program can help protect them from themselves.

"You can't teach them something and assume that because you told them not to do something they're not going to do it," she said.

The program has been powerful so far, said Margaret Pither, Student Assistance Coordinator for Vernon Hills High School. It incorporates information about prescription pain pills and the dangers of sharing medicine.

"We're trying to get the stronger message out there that even a small, quick thing could change everything," Pither said.

Another school awareness program is being organized by Take a Stand, a Facebook-based grass-roots group based in Lake Zurich. After spring break, the group is leading an assembly and kickoff meeting at Jane Addams Middle School in Schaumburg, encouraging students to sign a pledge form to stay addiction-free. They are encouraged to make family and friends sign it, too. The five students who can get the most friends and family to sign the pledge form will win a prize, such as Great America season passes, an iPad or an iPod.

Education will reduce the number of overdoses and deaths, said Naperville Police Sgt. Lou Cammiso. Naperville has been hit hard by the heroin crisis, leading police there to hold several forums on the subject over the years.

As the number of people affected by the drug has grown, so has interest finding solutions. A few of the police forums had standing room only crowds.

"With each new wave of (high school) kids, you have kids who were too young to recall the kids who died. It's like a new batch of kids have to learn the lesson over again," Cammiso said. "Not only do the kids need to learn the lessons, but (so do) parents."

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