More than 'Just Say No': Louie's Law would provide drug education in K-12 schools
Louie Miceli had a typical suburban childhood growing up in Medinah and later playing football while a student at Driscoll Catholic High School in Addison, says his mom, Felicia Miceli.
So when he approached her as a seventh-grader to express feelings of anxiety and depression, Felicia Miceli didn't think much of it.
"I reacted like, 'You have nothing to be anxious or depressed about,' and dismissed it and didn't validate those feelings or explore them," she said.
Miceli didn't realize at the time that her son was exhibiting early signs of the substance use disorder that would lead to his 2012 death from a heroin overdose when he was 24 years old.
Now the Bartlett resident hopes that a new K-12 drug education bill working its way through the state legislature -- and named Louie's Law in memory of her son -- will arm students and families with the knowledge and resources that neither she nor her son had.
Senate Bill 2223 unanimously passed the state Senate in March and awaits a vote in the House. If passed by the House and signed by the governor, the law would direct the Illinois State Board of Education to work with the Department of Human Services, other state agencies and prevention experts to design a comprehensive drug education curriculum for the state's public schools that would reduce substance use risk factors.
The legislation is the result of a collaboration among advocates that includes Felicia Miceli, who founded the LTM Heroin Education and Awareness Foundation, and the bill's co-authors: Kyra Jagodzinski, coordinator for the Illinois Harm Reduction and Recovery Coalition, and Chelsea Laliberte Barnes, co-founder of the Arlington Heights-based community recovery center Live4Lali.
Miceli said Louie's addiction trajectory began when he was taking pain medication after surgeries for sports-related injuries.
"I got a phone call from one of Louie's friends' moms. They told me Louie was doing heroin," she said. "I didn't believe it. When I asked him about it, he didn't deny it. He welled up with tears, fell to the floor and said, 'Yes, Mom, it's true.'"
After Louie's death in August 2012, Miceli began to study addiction.
"I didn't know what I needed to know about the disease," she said, adding that she also was upset that Louie wasn't taught about it.
She formed her foundation with the idea that education is key to tackling substance abuse disorder and has been sharing that message with students and educators.
Her work brought her into touch with Barnes, who formed Live4Lali after the overdose death of her brother, Alex.
Jagodzinski, a 17-year-old graduate of Grant Community High School in Fox Lake, said she's seen firsthand the toll of drugs on her peers.
"We need an honest dialogue between adults and kids about drug use and what it is and how to prevent it or how to get help if they're experiencing it," she said.
She and Barnes began researching evidence-based drug education programs and came across Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs, created by the Drug Policy Alliance. It contains 15 lessons, providing what advocates describe as "honest, scientifically accurate information" about alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs.
Under the legislation, the curriculum would be made available to school districts statewide, but participation would be optional.
Lake County Regional Superintendent of Schools Michael Karner, who also works with the Lake County Opioid Initiative, said the need for drug education is reflected in overdose death statistics.
According to the county coroner, there were 131 drug overdose deaths in Lake last year. Of the 131 deaths, 105 were the result of opioids, mostly fentanyl.
"Learning about the dangers could potentially prevent future overdoses or prevent future deaths in our society," Karner said, adding that the proposed curriculum could be adapted to individual communities' needs.
"Every community is different," he said. "So if they can tailor it to their local community, it can have a huge effect."
The bill's sponsor in the House, state Rep. Joyce Mason, said the legislation has until April 28 to get out of committee and onto the floor for a vote.
"Unfortunately, it's something that we, I think, really have to focus on," the Gurnee Democrat said of the legislation. "I grew up in the '80s, when everything was 'Just Say No.' And, of course, we didn't have all of the dangers that people have now. It's gotten worse."
These days, she said, "Just Say No" just doesn't go far enough.
"I think having the full conversation with accurate information is really much more effective than saying, 'Just don't do it,'" she said. "I think our kids today are really smart and they're able to analyze and process information, and it just helps them make better decisions."
As she awaits action from the House, Miceli said she is thinking about the possible impact of Louie's Law on children like her 2-year-old grandson, Anthony. She can see Anthony sitting in a class one day and learning lessons made possible by a law named after the uncle he never met.