The St. Francis school community in 2013 has mourned the loss of two students, Robert McCullough and Jake Schmaus, whose deaths have been linked to heroin overdose.
Since Schmaus’ passing in May, many classmates have joined with area parents and other adults in a group for St. Francis Community Drug Awareness, to combat an issue that has grown in Anoka County and beyond its borders.
Concerned residents filled most of the high school Performing Arts Center on Nov. 21 for the second informational forum that the Community Drug Awareness group has hosted this month.
“We’re committed to making this a safer place for our children,” said Michelle Anderson, the group chairperson and a parent of two students at St. Francis High School. “We need to get involved.”
She welcomed early comments from Det. Dan Douglas, representing the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office.
Douglas’ career with the county has included two tours of service with the Anoka-Hennepin Drug Task Force. When he rejoined the unit in late 2009, heroin use and availability was already a rising evil, he said. “It was coming to us in the form of dead bodies,” Douglas said.
Heroin as a plant traces back thousands of years to the Mesopotamian era, according to Douglas, and he covered other history before noting some American pharmaceutical firms promoted heroin as a substitute for morphine at the turn of the 20th century.
The use of heroin and other opiates will slow down a person’s heartbeat and lower blood pressure until breathing stops, in some cases, and drugs of the opium family have claimed more lives in Minnesota’s larger metro counties than cocaine and methamphetamine combined through the past seven years, Douglas said.
Anoka County had counted another victim just that morning, an individual who was rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center two days earlier, he said.
When they survive an injection or other applications of heroin, such as smoking or snorting a powdered form of the drug, users are likely to suffer great pains in their joints and muscles plus nausea and diarrhea for three days or more, Douglas said.
Often, heroin users will have tried the drug after experience with codeine, OxyContin or other medications for relief of pain from physical injuries, he said.
As they become addicted to heroin, Douglas said, they have entered a place where they often feel there is no escape. “Nobody wants to do it (the drug),” he said. “I think anyone on it is frightened by their own actions.”
If they avoid death, many survive their addictions only because their use of the drug has landed them in jail. Douglas’ stories of arrests through the drug task force’s strategic heroin initiative included a search in December 2011 of a Columbia Heights home that was shared by an adult man and woman who were both users.
Law enforcement’s review of the case led to the Crystal-Robbinsdale area home of a dealer who was indicted on multiple counts and sentenced for 20 years in prison, after a search of that property in February 2012.
Douglas said that those drugs likely had come from a source in Chicago, Ill. He said it is possible but not certain that heroin has been dealt directly somewhere in St. Francis School District 15.
While Afghanistan remains far and away the world’s leading producer of heroin, covering more than 500,000 acres of agricultural land, Mexico has become runner-up with around 43,000 acres, he said. “They have rushed into second place, because they have seen the demand (to the north),” Douglas said.
Douglas handed the mic in the high school auditorium to a partner in public safety, Sgt. Jake Rehling of the St. Francis Police Department.
Rehling told parents that an estimated 2,500 teenagers daily are wrongfully using prescription drugs for a “first-time high.”
Area families can rid their homes of medications they no longer use for prescribed reasons by leaving them in a drop box in the police department’s lobby at 4058 St. Francis Blvd. NW, regularly open 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, he said.
The drugs may be unlabeled, Rehling said. “If you don’t know what it is and you don’t want it, bring it to us,” he said. “We’ll take care of it. We’re looking for your assistance to get it off the street.”
St. Francis Police are getting cooperation for the program from Goodrich Pharmacy and agencies across Anoka County have collected 1,140 pounds in unused prescriptions through the past six months, Rehling said. “This is working,” he said.
Start watching in grade school
Stacy Overby, a chemical dependency counselor with Nystrom and Associates, shared with the parents that their radar for serious issues which could be drug-related should be up when children are still in grade school.
Overby spoke of many symptoms that include behaviors which could be classified as teen living, yet they can be signs there are real problems, she said.
Be mindful of mood swings and show concern or interest when a son or daughter seems to begin placing more or less emphasis on appearance or hygiene, Overby said.
Take note of their friends and whether a teen seems to have shifted in popularity or transitioned among circles of friends, she said.
Perhaps most telling of possible issues with drugs, according to Overby, would be unexplained losses or gains of personal items of value such as smartphones or video games.
Also, most normal teens are known to ask parents for money on occasion, but if a child is asking for cash considerably more or less frequently, that could give reason for raising another red flag, Overby said.
Overby’s experience with teen counseling is that some youth have traded cash or other goods for drugs, she said.
“If you think something is wrong, start looking into it, because you’re probably right,” Overby said.
Plea with students
Sarah Porisch, a native of the area and a St. Francis graduate in 2000, traveled to the forum from her teaching position at Little Falls Community Middle School.
She pleaded with the youth at the event to watch for the signs in their siblings and friends. She said that she wished she could have done more for a brother, Alex Wald, who was three years younger but stopped going to school after ninth grade. Sarah and Alex and another brother, Phil, had attended East Bethel and Cedar Creek community schools.
Alex died Nov. 25, 2011, at the age of 26. Porisch said her brother Alex’s story was one of a “good person making bad choices,” and that her brother is missed also as a son, uncle and father.
The siblings were close from early in their childhood, and the one girl and two boys were active in many of the same activities. “We all wrestled (competitively), but Alex was definitely the best of the three of us,” Porisch said.
Wald won multiple state youth wrestling titles before also playing football through school. He began using drugs, mainly marijuana, at 14. “I knew that he was sneaking out, but I thought he was just being a kid,” Porisch said.
The family began missing some valuables. Notably, Porisch said that her father lost a boat motor.
Porisch had married and started a family by 2007 and she was reluctant to expose her children to their uncle Alex but agreed on her mother’s urging to spend that Christmas with him. They wanted to show support for Wald while not supporting his drug use, although he was “very high” from cocaine at the time, Porisch said.
He showed exceptional anger over not receiving as many gifts as others, she said.
Alex’s addiction had moved to methamphetamine by 2009 and that fall he crashed a car into a residential home while fleeing from police. He ran from the scene and eventually suffered an injury when apprehended by a police K-9 dog.
Wald was acting as a different person, Porisch said. “My sober brother would have cared about the people in that house,” she said.
Wald went through his first overdose on heroin in November 2010, followed by a second instance in May 2011. He returned to breathing due to skilled CPR from his brother Phil, Porisch said.
After completing several months of jail time, Wald moved north and into his sister’s home in early November 2011, applying for work as he could despite felonies on his record, Porisch said.
Porisch learned for the first time she could recall, she said, that her brother was a beautiful poet and a worthy “Scrabble” opponent.
They were good memories before the extended family spent one last Thanksgiving with Wald, Porisch said, and a third overdose on heroin proved fatal for him that Friday. Porisch’s husband, a trained EMT, confirmed the death in a bedroom, she said.
“When we lost Alex, I felt like I’d lost my (own) battle against addiction,” Porisch said. “I wished I would have told someone when I knew (in high school).”
Support for group
The St. Francis Community Drug Awareness group has strong support from district officials, particularly School Board member David Roberts.
He said Nov. 21 that he was announcing publicly in the community for the first time that he is only a devoted spouse, father and civic volunteer now because he is a survivor who overcame a drug addiction in his teen years.
“I’m a grateful, recovering addict,” Roberts said. “It’s been years, years and years since I’ve fought this battle. There’s no easy way out and it does kill.”
He described life as a youth in “middle-class suburbia,” raised in a family with two sisters.
Trying cocaine at age 12 set him on his bad path. “I didn’t think I’d live to see 20 years old,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the St. Francis community can succeed in this battle. “We need each other to do it,” he said. “We protect our children, and together we will take back our community.”
The two-hour program did not allow time for questions from the audience, but the group has scheduled a question-and-answer session for 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 2, at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 19001 Jackson St. NE. It was the site of the first informational forum in November.
Porisch and Roberts are expected to join a seven-member panel who will respond to questions submitted on note cards.