From the marijuana-fueled antics featured in “Harold and Kumar,” to Heath Ledger’s infamous death by accidental overdose, teenagers are increasingly faced with a barrage of movies, music and magazines that glorify drugs. Within this destructive culture, how long will it take before we will be unable to “just say no”?
Unfortunately, it is already too late for Sean Gahagan.
Just a month after taking a step into the real world, Sean, a recent graduate of Kamiak High School, was pronounced dead after an accidental heroin overdose. Tragic stories like this are becoming much too common. Three days before Sean’s death, two of his friends were rushed to hospitals after allegedly using the same potent drug. Sixteen-year-old Danielle McCarthy died after consuming a fatal dose of ecstasy in Edmonds on New Year’s Eve 2006.
What is happening to us?
Ironically, it is within our schools, the bastion of student safety and knowledge, that teens face the allure of drugs. According to the National Center on Abuse and Addiction at Columbia University, students in drug-infested schools are 16 times likelier to use an illegal drug, five times likelier to use marijuana, and 15 times likelier to abuse prescription drugs compared to teens at drug-free schools. Although it is still unclear where Sean obtained his heroin, the majority of Kamiak students have easy access to drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana and black tar heroin.
However, it is interesting to note that Kamiak’s Health Program, a mandatory course for all graduating students, includes comprehensive lessons on drugs. This means that Sean had a chance, just as everyone else in his graduating class, to learn about the potentially fatal side effects of opiates like heroin.
John Oh, an honor student at Kamiak High School, juggles various responsibilities — orchestra concertmaster, senior class treasurer, president of Key Club — and sees the cracks in our drug education. “Although health classes inform us how bad drugs are, I doubt it’s very effective,” commented John. “The biggest thing about drugs is peer pressure. If a close friend asked someone to do drugs, it would be extremely tempting to try.”
Our schools and society are not doing enough to effectively curb teen drug use. But school officials claim Kamiak is no different from any other high school in the state; drugs are being used and sold despite their prevention programs. This could be true nationally, as 11 million high school students have personally witnessed illegal drug possession and use in their own schools in 2007, according to the aforementioned research organization.
Furthermore, the Association for Psychological Science brought a major blow against a nationwide substance awareness system called Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), and pronounced that the program harms rather than helps. D.A.R.E. considers itself an international educational program that gives kids “the skills they need to avoid involvement in drugs, gangs and violence.”
But over the years, researchers have shown that D.A.R.E. is ultimately counterproductive. Among its most prominent critics, the U.S. General Accountability Office concluded in 2003 teens who graduated from D.A.R.E. later “had higher rates of drug use.” In 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher acknowledged that D.A.R.E. “does not work.”
Perhaps in the upcoming school year, Kamiak students will better understand the devastating risks behind a short high.
Rest in peace, Sean.
You-Jung Kim is a junior at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo.