Selling fear: heroin education in the Delaware suburbs

 Brochure image from New Castle County heroin awareness campaign

Brochure image from New Castle County heroin awareness campaign

Marie Allen clicks through her last slide and wheels back toward the audience.

 She asks for questions, her voice caroming off the auditorium walls.

There are none.

Of the 50 or so teenagers before her, not one so much as moves.

After a beat, the students and their parents break into soft applause. Allen nods and lays down her microphone.

“The silence is normal”

For the past 17 years, Allen has visited hundreds of schools in the mid-Atlantic to talk about her daughter, Erin, and the drug that killed her, heroin. Even after thousands of presentations, she’s still fascinated by the reaction her presentation elicits–or the lack thereof.

“The silence is normal. I think they’re just processing everything,” Allen says. “But when they were just sitting in their chairs like that and nobody was getting up–even the parents were just sitting there–I didn’t know what to think of it.”

And what were the students thinking? Perhaps they were shocked. Perhaps they were bored. Perhaps they were tying not to be rude.

“I was really sad because after watching the video and letting her talk about her daughter and everything I didn’t know if we should clap,” said student attendee Gianna Pantaleo.

Classmate, Chris Kirwin, added, “I think everybody was just trying to process the idea of why this happens to people and how it happens to people.”

On this night, Allen’s audience is the eighth grade class at the Independence School–a private elementary and middle school in Newark, Delaware. Nestled on a sprawling suburban campus, Independence may seem an odd setting for an hour of heroin tough talk.

But officials say these are exactly the students they want to reach. Heroin abuse is booming in Delaware and white, suburban teens are the face of that deadly surge.

“We’re responding to middle America,” says Colonel Elmer Setting, New Castle County Chief of Police. “We’re walking into 123 Anywhere Street in Hockessin, in Centerville, in New Castle. And it’s very clear to us who’s doing heroin. It’s very, very young, mostly white folks and they’re dying from it.”

Gauging the epidemic

Last year, 3,182 Delawareans sought treatment for substance abuse at state facilities and listed heroin as their primary drug. That number represents nearly a third of all drug abuse patients, and a 108 percent increase in heroin addicts since 2010. Meanwhile, as a result of a crackdown on pill mills, those seeking help for prescription pill addiction plummeted.

The connection between these trends is chemical. Heroin has much the same effect as prescription opioids like Percocet and OxyContin. It’s also cheaper, more accessible, and deadlier, police say.

This bump in heroin abuse coincides with a demographic shift in who takes the drug. Once associated with inner-cities, heroin now largely afflicts those living in “less urban areas” according to a 2014 survey. That same paper found that about 90 percent of modern heroin users are white.

Meanwhile, heroin education has struggled to make inroads.

A 2011 survey of suburban heroin users in the Chicago area found that most had “little or no education regarding heroin use and dependency.” Nationally, 60.9 percent of eighth graders say it would be a “great risk” to inject heroin once or twice with a needle, down 0.7 percent from one decade ago. When asked the same question about taking heroin “occasionally” without a needle, 73.2 percent identified a risk, down 4.3 percent from a decade prior.

What Delaware students learn about heroin varies from district to district and school to school. The state requires 15 hours of substance abuse education every year from grades 7 to 12, but does not mandate students learn specifically about heroin. Marie Allen says her presentation is often the only time students learn about the drug in detail.

Selling fear

To supplement that, New Castle County recently launched a $500,000 advertising campaign that includes a website, television spots, and bus billboards. The ads target suburban teens. In one, a music box plays over darkly lit images of a child’s bedroom. Panning past a snowboard and baseball glove, the camera lands finally on a brown-haired boy lying limp in the corner with a needle protruding from his arm.

“What we are selling, essentially, is fear,” said David Grimaldi, the county’s Chief Administrative Officer, at a press conference announcing the initiative.

It is an unabashedly straightforward and unforgiving approach. Officials want to scare teenagers off heroin. Marie Allen has been using that tactic for almost two decades.

In her presentation, she spares no detail chronicling the six-year spiral that took Erin from alcohol abuse to heroin addiction. Students hear of the time she stole her mother’s car and sold it for $200 of drug money. They hear about the time a family friend found her raped and beaten in Philadelphia’s Badlands section. And then there was that final day, when police found Erin with a needle in hand.

Marie and her partner, New Castle County policeman Perry Sorrels, go deep into the details of heroin use. They diagram the various implements used to inject heroin, introduce students to the drug’s four main varieties, describe what heroin looks like on the street, and detail how much it costs.

They also show gruesome pictures of dead addicts, their arms pocked with needle holes. Officer Sorrels even brings out a body bag for extra emphasis.

“I don’t think we’ve left anything out,” Allen says.

“It can happen to anybody”

She and Sorrels also emphasize heroin’s reach across culture and class. “It doesn’t matter if you live in an apartment complex,” Sorrels says. “It doesn’t matter if you live in a $50,000 house. It doesn’t matter if you live in a half million dollar house.”

When Allen talks about her daughter, she rotates through pictures of Erin posing with Santa Claus, cuddling with the family dog, and clutching the wheel of the family car. Together they paint a familiar, almost romantic, portrait of suburban life.

“I want them to realize that it can happen to anybody,” Allen says. “We were just a normal middle class family.”

So, did the students at the Independence School grasp that? Did they find the intended meaning somewhere in their silence?

At least one did.

Rhianna Zaher bears a superficial resemblance to Erin, at least in the chestnut color of her hair and the sparkling braces strapped across her teeth. Asked afterward what she was thinking when Allen finished her presentation, Rhianna gives the answer officials all over New Castle County want to hear.

“At that point what was going through my head was that the girl was just a normal girl and that she was just asked to take a drug once and then couldn’t stop,” Rhianna says. “That was really saddening to hear–that it can happen to anybody.”

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