Heroin death raises questions on education

Disturbing, depressing and darned near too sad for words, the death of 17-year-old Sean Gahagan raises all sorts of questions.

Heroin? Really? A bright, artistic boy with a recently minted Kamiak High School diploma died last week after using heroin?

That’s what detectives with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office suspect. In addition to the teen’s death, The Herald reported Tuesday that two of his friends were rushed to emergency rooms after they also allegedly used heroin.

Where and how the teen may have obtained the highly addictive drug are questions for others. What I wonder is this: Could anything have prevented this waste of a precious young life?

It’s too late for John Joseph Gahagan VI, the Mukilteo area boy known as Sean. It’s not too late for kids who haven’t yet encountered drugs, or for those who may already be using them.

Some will say it’s a naive throwback to the just-say-no Reagan era, but news of Gahagan’s death had me thinking about Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Remember the DARE program? The snazzy black cars painted with the program’s logo?

My older kids, now 21 and 25, went through DARE classes taught by Everett police officers when they were in fifth grade. Sgt. Robert Goetz, an Everett police spokesman, said Wednesday that the department no longer offers DARE, and instead has school ­resource officers in high schools and middle schools.

Those police officers still speak with students, but their structured drug-prevention classes are gone from Everett schools and most others around Snohomish County.

Cheol Kang, a crime prevention officer with the Mukilteo Police Department, said the department hasn’t had a DARE program since the 1990s.

As I recall my kids’ experiences with DARE, it was heavy on resisting peer pressure. If you were looking for nuance — including any message that some illegal drugs were more deadly than others — you didn’t get that from DARE.

The program’s effectiveness has been challenged by a number of studies. A 2002 article in the online magazine Salon cited a string of academic and government studies and experts — the U.S. surgeon general, the General Accounting Office, the University of North Carolina, and the National Academy of Sciences — contending there was little difference in later drug use between students who took DARE and those who didn’t.

And yet, we ought to do more than teach nothing.

The Lynnwood Police Department is one of the few in the region that still has DARE. The program is offered to fifth- and sixth-graders in elementary schools within the Lynnwood city limits, and to two private schools. “It’s been going for 22 years,” Lynnwood police spokeswoman Shannon Sessions said. The cost, she said, is the salary of one full-time DARE officer, who works in schools nine months of the year and is on patrol in the summer.

“Drugs and gangs are just a piece of it,” Sessions said. “The DARE officer is a special person, a positive representative of police in general. It’s someone who cares about them.”

Alan Correa, Lynnwood’s DARE officer, sees middle schoolers going through the physical and emotional changes of pre-adolescence. “They naturally want to experiment with things. There’s also a natural tendency to rebel against authority and their parents,” Correa said.

“And times have changed,” the 45-year-old Correa added. “When you and I were growing up, we weren’t barraged with videos, music and magazines that glorify this stuff.”

Correa believes the success of DARE boils down to the teacher. “It’s how that individual connects with kids,” he said. “The bottom line, you’re always going to have straight-A type kids and kids who are probably going to fail. We’re targeting that middle area. We have a chance to make a change.”

Andy Muntz, Mukilteo School District spokesman, is frustrated that attention turns toward schools when kids get into drugs.

“We try as best we can, but we’re kind of limited in what we can do,” he said. “We’re not the parents. We can try to teach kids that drugs are not good. We can counsel kids who get into drug problems. We discipline kids who bring drugs on campus. But we’re not the courts, not the jail and not a detox center.”

Maybe Sean Gahagan took a drug-prevention class. Would anything have worked to save him? Sadly — so sadly — no one will ever be able to ask him.

DARE? I don’t know. Perhaps a better prevention tool is to show other kids a stark headline: “Heroin blamed in teen’s death.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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