Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 7, 2005.
Pictures of graveyards plaster the walls of Danvers High School.
"Quick. Easy. Cheap," they read. "Heroin can kill you."
The posters are part of Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett's crusade to teach teens the dangers of opiate use. If you believe the students, they're not learning it in health class.
"They don't actually talk to us about it," said sophomore Stephanie Stanford, 16. "I didn't know what OxyContin was until, like, this year."
So how do they learn opiates are dangerous?
"You hear that someone ODs on it," said freshman Heather Swindell.
A Salem News review of five districts' curricula suggests local schools may not be doing enough to make sure students know how easily opiates can kill them. They lessons often start too late, end too early, and aren't underlined enough in between.
- In Peabody's ninth-grade Life Choices class, students watch videos about sex, anorexia and cocaine, but none specifically mentions heroin or OxyContin, according to the curriculum documents. On the multiple-choice entry exam, heroin comes up twice — both times as the wrong answer.
- In the Hamilton-Wenham and Marblehead districts, curriculum documents indicate opiates are addressed only in 10th-grade health class.
- Masconomet's eighth-grade health class curriculum vaguely describes lessons on the "consequences of substance abuse," but fails to mention opiates by name.
- In Beverly, handouts distributed to students describe the dangers of OxyContin and inform them that heroin's nicknames include "hell dust," "smack" and "thunder," but the curriculum indicates those handouts come no earlier than 11th grade.
How other North Shore schools handle the topic is unclear because their superintendents did not turn over curriculum documents months after getting written requests from The Salem News.
High school principals at Ipswich, Marblehead, Masconomet and Swampscott did not return repeated calls. And one principal who agreed to an interview suggested his students have dodged the epidemic.
"The only drug with which we've been dealing is marijuana," said Peter Sack, principal of Manchester Essex Regional High School. "I have seen absolutely no evidence whatsoever of OxyContin or heroin use. None. Nor have I heard any rumors or innuendoes."
A shift in focus
Part of the vagueness can be traced to a state Department of Education framework that doesn't recommend teaching about specific drugs.
"There's been a shift away from educating about a particular drug, to prevention," said spokeswoman Kimberly Beck. "Pharmacology is really not the technique that's been effective."
Beck said the DOE recommends other methods.
"So it's more about refusal skills, kind of walking away, those kinds of things," she said.
But Steve Chisholm, who has counseled thousands of opiate addicts at CAB Health & Recovery in Danvers, says educators should specifically teach kids that while it may be easier to pop an OxyContin pill than to shoot heroin, the effect is similar and can be just as dangerous.
"There is a knowledge deficit with the youth," he said, "so they really don't understand they are taking a synthetic opiate" when they use OxyContin.
Based on talks with educators and health professionals, Blodgett said he thinks children should start learning about potentially lethal opiates in fifth grade. But in many cases, that's not happening.
"We'd never be talking about heroin in the classroom," said Rose Marie DiResta, who retired last summer after 12 years as principal at the Riverside Elementary School in Danvers. "Hopefully they haven't been exposed to it yet, and this isn't the place we're going to bring it into their life."
Principal Michael Cali of Dunn Middle School in Danvers said his teachers don't spend a lot of time discussing opiates either.
"It may be touched upon in health classes," he said. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but OxyContin is a relatively new phenomenon."
Making an impression
What messages the schools deliver aren't always received.
"Well, we do learn about certain drugs in school," said Danvers High sophomore Kelly Hanson. "In health class we do learn about it. They say it's bad for you. That's about it."
Anthony Morrison and Ervin Saravia, both juniors at Peabody High, said they know classmates who have faked injuries, gone to the hospital, gotten OxyContin prescriptions and sold the drug to their peers.
Both said many kids at their high school use OxyContin, but they've never learned about its effects in a classroom.
Others at Peabody High have similar reports.
"No one says anything about it," said junior Stephanie Manning.
Blodgett has described the problem to superintendents and principals across the county, but he knows of none who have bolstered their opiate-related education as of yet. There are some signs of hope, though.
The Salem superintendent recently agreed to co-host a forum with Blodgett this coming Monday at Salem High School to warn students and their parents about the dangers of OxyContin and heroin. And Peabody superintendent Nadine Binkley recently said she would be open to bringing in speakers to talk to students.
Still, Blodgett and others say a lot more can be done.
"Most (educators) said they didn't see a lot of heroin in our schools," said George Festa, executive director of New England's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal program. "And that may be true, but I don't think so. Not with what we've been seeing."
Staff writer Sean Corcoran contributed to this report.