School, law enforcement struggle to address suburban drug problem

by cassielowery, ‘13 and oliviamiltner, ‘13

John*, a student at UAHS, sits in a group at his drug dealer’s house, cigarettes in hand. His dealer goes around passing out sandwich baggies containing heroin, while collecting money. As the group begins shooting up, John immediately feels at ease.

“With all these people sitting around not judging me… it gives me a sense of community,” John said.

For him, heroin, is a way of forgetting all his problems.

“It leaves me emotionless, it’s an escape for me, to get rid of all the crap in my life,” John said. “At the same time it also makes me feel invincible, as though nothing could bring me down and even that feeling that nothing could kill me.”

The effects John experiences while on heroin are not uncommon. According to Marcel Casavant MD, chief of the Pharmacology / Toxicology department at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, heroin is used around the world today as a common, strong pain reliever related to morphine. It is also available to users in multiple forms.

Sitting on her bathroom toilet in LA, a heroin addict uses her teeth to tighten a belt used as a tourniquet as she in injects black tar heroin through a vein into her finger. Many of her veins have closed up because of the drug use. Both UA administration and law enforcement say heroin is an increasing problem in the community.

“Some heroin looks like a fine powder, and some heroin looks like a black or brown putty or tar,” Casavant said.

Heroin can be smoked or snorted, but is most commonly injected into the body.

“[These methods] get high concentrations [of heroin] into the blood rapidly and… once it’s in the bloodstream, the drug itself has an easier time getting straight into the brain [than other drugs],” Casavant said.

John has noticed that more people are looking for a similar release, and are taking advantage of the relatively easy access to the drug.

“[Heroin is] for sure…becoming more commonly used. It’s also easier to get. Even at school I could go and get my fix,” John said.

Recently, heroin abuse has increased at UAHS, as well as at many other high schools around central Ohio, according to Upper Arlington police officer Scott Metcalf.

“[Heroin use has] risen in the past five years or so,” Metcalf said. “Obviously with the run-ins that we’ve had with various individuals—including [a kid] who’s 16 years old—it’s very sad.”

The increase in heroin use is due in part to its availability, as John noted. Metcalf said a heroin drug trafficking ring has developed in central Ohio.

“The problem is, Columbus is now a distribution center for major drugs, including heroin. We used to not be a distribution center hub,” Metcalf said. “Our large influx of illegal immigrants have direct connections to drug cartels; and the drug cartels are using that to their advantage and have [the immigrants] bring [heroin] into Columbus.”

According to Metcalf, one of the ways the drug is distributed is through balloons, which are used to sneak the drug into the United States. Several grams of the drug are placed inside a balloon which is then swallowed. A string is attached to the balloon so that it can be pulled back up after arriving in the United States.

Because of the many ways traffickers have found to move drugs into the U.S., heroin distribution in Columbus has made the drug extremely inexpensive.

“You can buy a 10 gram balloon for about 10 to 15 bucks,” Metcalf said. “And then there’s also black tar heroin….which is even cheaper, maybe 5 to 10 bucks.”

Heroin at UAHS

Not only has heroin entered Columbus, but it has also found its way into the high school itself.

The drug is also relatively easy to obtain at the high school. Some students are even dealers themselves.

“It’s not all that expensive since I have a nice supply of money coming in from selling,” John said. “Hell, sometimes the people I sell for are nice enough to throw me some for free.”

According to John, getting hold of a more serious drug like heroin is not as hard as some may think.

“It’s as easy to get as someone walking into a gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes. [The] only difference is, it’s not cigs and how much you can get and how often you get it all just depends on who you know,” John said.

Principal Kip Greenhill said one of the reasons heroin has become an issue at UAHS is because of a combination of low cost and the excess of money. According to him, suburban schools have a larger issue with substance abuse in general because students in the area have greater access to money.

“The national data shows that in communities like ours there’s more of a substance abuse problem than in rural or urban schools because of the money,” Greenhill said. “Families here have more money that students can access for drugs or alcohol.”

Greenhill said focusing solely on heroin will not solve the overarching problem of substance abuse.

“You [usually] start with the prescription pain medications, and before the prescription pain medication it’s usually alcohol or marijuana. It’s that progress. Not everyone goes through that progression, but that’s where it starts,” Greenhill said. “Communities make a mistake when they focus on one drug. It’s not a heroin problem; it’s a substance abuse problem.”

Heroin was not the first drug John used, as Greenhill noted is the case with most users.

“I smoked cigarettes and sometimes smoked pot [before I started doing heroin],” John said. “But my main thing… was OxyContin and Percocet.”

These two drugs are prescription pain medications, which have similar, yet weaker, effects as heroin. John was a freshman when he used heroin for the first time.

“I was at my dealers house one day, picking up an order of OxyContin and he had some other dudes there buying [heroin],” John said. “I was kind of curious as to what it was, so I was looking at it [when] one of them started talking to me…and he asked me if I’d ever done it before. I said no and he asked me if I wanted to try it. Before I knew it, I was answering sure. Next thing I know, he said he’d let me try it for free and boom, veins popping out and needle going in.”

Taking action

In order to combat the substance-abuse problem at the high school, Greenhill has taken a unique stance on prevention. Instead of bringing in police officers and drug dogs to help enforce laws and rules proposed by the government and the school, he believes in creating a trusting environment where students can find a comfortable place for learning and education. He wants the focus to be more on the individuals who have been found using illegal substances, rather than targeting the entire student population through random searches.

“If someone brought a police dog into my office to search, I’d be offended,” Greenhill said. “We have a unique climate in this school… I could mess that up really easily. [If] I bring police dogs in here … our whole relationship is going to change and the culture in the school is going to start to change.”

He also believes that search dogs would not be more effective at discovering illicit drug users than the current system is.

“I can tell you right now, anyone that the dogs catch, I already have a suspicion,” he said. “ I’ve probably already talked to the parents and said, ‘I think your child’s using.’”

In addition to his aversion to police and drug dogs in UAHS, Greenhill insists that expulsion will not solve a student’s substance-abuse problem.

“I’ve never seen anyone’s drug or alcohol use change because you kick them out of school,” he said. “I’ve been suspending students for 30-some years, and I don’t think that’s ever happened.”

Though aware that there have to be consequences for these types of actions, Greenhill is more focused on helping the students get back on track. He encourages his students to get counseling and forces them to comply with certain procedures.

“What we’ll do with someone that’s been caught [using drugs and alcohol] multiple times, we’re going to put you out of school for a fairly long period of time,” Greenhill said. “When you [do] come back, you’re going to have to go for counseling and submit to random drug tests done by the school.”

Current Policy Concerns

Greenhill’s attitude towards alcohol and drug abuse has raised criticism among many people in the district, including those on the school board and some police officers.

“Most [administrators] don’t buy into it because they think you’ve got to have a lot of rules and you’ve got to enforce the rules, but I come along and say few rules,” Greenhill said.

Officer Metcalf is one of those who disagrees with Greenhill’s approach to substance abuse.

“I think one of our problems here is we’re not doing enough about [the drug problem at the high school],” Metcalf said.

He believes that instead of tarnishing the school environment, the use of police officers and/or drug dogs would be beneficial. This is partly because it would help students overcome their negative views of police officers.

“I still get the vibe, and I hear it here and there, [that students are] thinking that we are out to get them. That’s not the case,” Metcalf said. “The reason we end up … having encounters with students is because they make mistakes. It’s not anything personal. We encounter adults that make mistakes [too]; we’re not just looking for [students].”

Metcalf also believes that the presence of police officers at school would not instill fear and discomfort within the student body.

“I’ve always felt that, even if I were over there, I don’t think you all would be scared. I don’t think it would upset this balance of serenity [Greenhill is] talking about,” Metcalf said. “If I were standing in the hallways and greeting y’all and saying, ‘Hey, how was softball last night,’ you shouldn’t be intimidated by that. And to be honest with you, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be intimidated anyway.”

He also said he was opposed to some of the parent’s views on police officers and search dogs in the school.

“I’ve heard stories too from other parents that have talked to other parents and they say, ‘We’re glad the officers aren’t in our schools, but different reasons [than Greenhill’s]. Not for the tranquility of the school, [but] because…if we bust these kids for possessing marijuana or illicit drugs or something they’ll never be able to get into college with those felony convictions,” Metcalf said. “Thinking, ‘Well, I want to keep police officers out of the school because that could harm my kid in the future’… I don’t understand that mentality.”

Metcalf said he would take a different approach to the situation.

“If I was a parent at this school, I’d be the first one knocking on his office door, saying ‘Why aren’t you doing that?’ I’d be at [my kid’s] school if that was happening. I would be there, saying, ‘Why aren’t’ we doing more?’ Metcalf said.

Legal Consequences

Police searches for drugs is one way schools try and fight substance abuse. Greenhill sees this as being inefficient, as police officers must have a probable cause before they conduct a search, whereas he only needs just cause.

“I have more freedom to search than a police officer,” Greenhill said. “If I have a suspicion that you could have drugs—that suspicion being you staggered when you walked down the hall [hypothetically]—I can search you. A police officer can’t.”

Metcalf agreed that police have more restrictions regarding their ability to search compared to school administrators.

“The school has a little different policy,” said Metcalf. “The school, because it is their property, they’re allowed to check lockers, for instance, on their own. If I come in, I either have to have a drug dog hit on that locker, or I have to have a search warrant to get in that locker… because it’s not my property.”

According to Metcalf, a police officer needs to have more hard evidence to search a student. For example, a police officer must see a student trade a suspicious-looking substance for money before being able to search them for evidence of a drug deal.

Metcalf still believes searches and drug dogs are effective and would like to see them implemented at the high school.

“My [son]…goes to a very small country school. They do drug dog searches…He doesn’t have anything to hide, so he doesn’t care. He thinks it’s kind of cool to see them…[It] makes him feel safer too, knowing that [stuff isn’t] in there,” Metcalf said.

If the police or school does find any illegal substances, the student in possession would not only be in trouble with the school but would also face serious legal consequences. Unlike marijuana, getting caught with heroin is a felony, not a misdemeanor for both possession and trafficking. The degree of the felony varies from a fifth to a first-degree depending on the amount of the substance involved in the offense, according to the Ohio Revised Code (Chapter 2925). This means that a prison term can be imposed on the offender.

Such consequences took effect last spring for 2007 UA alum Michael Stechison. He was convicted of robbing five UA businesses with a fake gun—including Graeter’s on Lane Avenue—in an effort to support his heroin addiction.

“No thought went into it,” Stechison said in an interview with 10 TV. “It was just, ‘What do I need to do to get high?’ There’s money there and money gets me heroin. That’s basically all that went through my head.”

After spending several months in an out-of-state treatment program, Stechison is now serving a prison term of up to 25 years for his crimes.

An Ongoing Issue

Drug abuse had always been an issue at UA, according to Greenhill. It is a problem that is extremely difficult to control.

“Where drugs and alcohol and marijuana are concerned, there’s not a school in the country who’s been able to lick it,” Greenhill said.

However, while Greenhill and Metcalf disagree on the current policy, both are dedicated to the ongoing fight on substance abuse.

“I hear about these young heroin addicts at the high school, and I’ve seen a couple of them, and I didn’t even recognize them… It hurts,” Metcalf said, “I’m a parent and I don’t want to see kids go that route.”

Greenhill, also, wants to help these kids as much as possible and hopes that the community sees this.

“I want people to know that I really do have a plan on how to deal with this,” Greenhill said. “ You may not agree with it, but I’m not turning my back to it.”

Metcalf also said he’s seen students wanting to reach out to each other.

“[Some students] see their friends going downhill or maybe making poor choices and say, ‘How can we help them?’” Metcalf said. “There’s a lot of compassion out there… I just wish we could all get together on it.”