Drugs in between classes, binge drinking on the weekends — that’s the reality for a large part of the Ridgefield High School population, according to Luke St. Pierre.
The RHS senior spoke to a crowd of about 50 people at a substance abuse forum sponsored by Ridgefield Library Feb. 1.
The event — also co-sponsored by the Ridgefield Prevention Council and the Ridgefield Community Coalition Against Substance Abuse (RCCASA) — featured six panelists representing mental health, law enforcement, affected family members, and a person in recovery.
St. Pierre was the student representative on the panel. He told the room he has been involved in the Safe Rides program since sophomore year.
He said that although it saves lives it doesn’t solve the real problem.
“You can’t fix addiction that way,” St. Pierre said.
He’s working with high school Principal Stacey Gross on a new program to educate eighth graders and prepare them for what they will encounter at RHS.
“People coming to high school are going to be more exposed to drugs and alcohol,” he said.
“Our goal is to inform.”
Ridgefield, like all surrounding towns, is a victim of the opioid epidemic affecting the nation.
“This drug does not discriminate,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi at the forum. “Always worry, be aware of what’s going on in your child’s life, be an active parent.”
He also said the town has to address the need for a rehabilitation facility.
“I hope, and believe, that what Ridgefield didn’t want was this particular one in this particular neighborhood,” he said about Mountainside, the proposed facility that was withdrawn from the consideration of the Planning and Zoning Commission after receiving fierce rejection from residents in the Old West Mountain Road neighborhood.
Ridgefield police Detective Tom Dardis said he has seen an increase in one specific drug since joining the department in 2004.
“I do see an uptake in heroin use,” said Dardis, who served as a panelist at the forum.
Dardis said that accidental overdoses from heroin happen frequently in town.
He said substance abuse has “filtered its way into the quiet communities, even the quiet community of Ridgefield.”
Liz Jorgensen of Insight Counseling, which treats teens and young adults battling drug addiction, said the town has an “extremely dominant” culture when it comes to smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at a young age.
“They are really key in the beginning stages in understanding how kids get involved with drugs,” she said.
Dardis said he has seen many parents grow casual in their attitudes toward alcohol consumption, allowing their underage children and their friends to drink at home.
“It just can’t be a more disastrous decision,” he said.
“There are so many criminal and civil liabilities — if I ever found out that my kid was at your house drinking, I would have you arrested and I’d sue the pants off you.”
Jorgensen said this sometimes means that parents themselves are suffering from alcoholism.
“In this day and age, if you serve your kids alcohol over and over again, you have a drinking problem.”
St. Pierre told the room that good academic scores are not an indicator of substance-free habits.
“A lot of kids are getting straight A’s but they’re still using,” he said.
“I think a lot of kids get pressured with coursework and increased competitiveness to get into colleges leading to anxiety and depression.”
All the mental health experts on the panel agreed that young people are “self-medicating,” turning to drugs and alcohol as a solution to emotional problems.
Marconi said state police are pursuing a Mexican cartel that is transporting heroin into the state, but enforcement is just part of the solution.
“The more we can get the word out, maybe we can save one more person,” he said.
Residents wanted to know how local police could get involved in the schools to prevent drug use during school hours.
“It’s a fine balance of disrupting a protected learning environment and dealing with that,” said Dardis.
He said the town has floating school resource officers who go when they’re needed, and that some schools have officers permanently stationed on school grounds.
Marconi asked the panelists what they thought the Ridgefield community could do to start fixing the problem, although he said this is a multi-faceted issue with no “silver-bullet solution.”
All the panelists agreed that having conversations about it was a step in the right direction, and they said addiction needs to be de-stigmatized.
“Compassion, understanding, not necessarily punishment or judgment,” said Kera Townshend, a New Canaan resident who is in recovery and has been sober for the past three years.
“We need to sit with the pain and be aware of it … and not look down on other people who are experiencing it.”
For more information about prevention efforts in Ridgefield, and for resource information about prevention, treatment, and Narcan, contact RCCASA coordinator Laura Cleary at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-431-1893.