By Jon Winkler
Last year, Southampton Town authorized the creation of a task force made up of government officials, police officers and school superintendents collaborating on ways to address widespread drug addiction.
This year, a similar crop of concerned citizens in East Hampton banded together to take action to prevent drug use by young people.
The Adolescent Mental Health and Substance Use Task Force was formed in January. Its members include members of the East Hampton Village and Town Police, The Retreat, Phoenix House, and the school districts of Amagansett, Springs, Montauk, Sag Harbor and East Hampton.
Adam Fine, principal of the East Hampton High School, serves as chair of the task force, which has met monthly to discuss how to prevent teenagers from becoming addicted to drugs.
“One of the big pieces for me on the committee was not to make it about opioids,” Mr. Fine said on May 25. “I wanted to make sure that we were dealing with the gateway drugs and not losing focus on marijuana, alcohol and the possibility of seeing kids with pills.”
Mr. Fine said that discussions about forming a task force started in the fall of 2017, when he and Kenneth Alversa, an East Hampton Town Police officer and East Hampton High’s school resource officer, read about the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force. Mr. Fine said that he and Officer Alversa wanted to bring together local agencies in an effort to prevent young people from starting down the path to opioid addiction.
Officer Alversa said last month the task force is also meant as an educational tool, much like the classes he often visits as a guest speaker at the high school — in criminal law, health and driver’s education, for instance.
“This should be primarily educational, not just on a student level but on a parent level as well,” said Officer Alversa. “It’s great if we’re able to get the message out there for younger kids. The longer you wait, the longer it takes to get kids to pay attention.”
Mr. Fine said that while he and Mr. Alversa were talking about putting the task force together, they called East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez for her input. Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, who is also a member of the task force, recently explained she had seen teens dealing with the stresses of everyday life without proper counseling, leading them to make poor decisions and “end up in cop cars.” Thanks to her input, the task force added a focus on mental health.
“We’ve seen high levels of stress in young people and they’re turning to drugs and alcohol,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. “Kids are so plugged into their phones and social media, it all needs to be part of their highlight reel. There’s so much stress to that. They have almost no downtime, they think their social media and outward appearance should be kept up, and kids start thinking about college earlier. The kids are so tired and can’t escape.”
Mr. Fine said the “escape” some students eventually find is alcohol and drugs. While he said he has not found any currently enrolled students using heroin, Mr. Fine said students have been caught with prescription medication including Adderall and Xanax. He added that students have also been using electronic cigarettes, known as vaporizers, to smoke liquid marijuana.
“With vaping, it’s easy to get and kids seem to think it will relieve stress and anxiety of their lives,” Mr. Fine said. “It’s a pressure-packed environment.”
The task force first met in January at East Hampton Town Hall and, according to Mr. Fine, discussed what issues exist currently in schools and in the town as a whole. Mr. Fine said that by the second meeting in February, the group determined its main goal going forward: educating parents about topics like the social host law, different types of marijuana and the good Samaritan law as it pertains to helping people who have overdosed. With that goal in mind, Mr. Fine said, the task force’s first immediate widespread action will be to create print advertisements and collaborate with LTV to produce informative PSAs about drug awareness to be broadcast to students and parents during major school events, including school band concerts.
Mr. Fine said he planned to meet with Morgan Vaughn, executive director of LTV, this month in the hopes of having the PSAs prepared by September.
“I think that just getting the facts out there is the first step for us,” Officer Alversa said. “I think people really don’t understand the law and facts, so maybe something will click. We just want to get people to realize what we have.”
Officer Alversa said the dialogue at task force meetings is “pretty open,” allowing members to hear the concerns of each other as well as other people from the community who attend the meetings, which are open to the public. He added that having representatives from agencies that deal with people who’ve experienced drug addiction, including Phoenix House and the Family Service League, “affirms” the concerns that parents and task force members may have.
In the future, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, said there may be men or women who’ve been affected by substance abuse who step forward to speak to parents and teens. She noted how Becky Savage of the 525 Foundation spoke at the high school in February about her two sons, Nick and Jack, both of whom died of an accidental overdose of opiates and alcohol.
“There are so many on-ramps to help parents in need and how to build resiliency against these dangerous things,” Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said. “We have to make sure that we have treatment and preventative steps.”