By John Burton
RUMSON – Educators and law enforcement officials plan to make the Nov. 18 program about the epidemic of heroin use in Monmouth County as a starting point for an ongoing conversation and more educational opportunities.
“It’s about planting seeds” in the minds of parents, students and educators, said Fair Haven Superintendent of Schools Nelson Ribon about the Monday, Nov. 18, presentation at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School. In the presentation, Monmouth County Acting Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni, detailed heroin use throughout the county to an overflow crowd of parents and students.
Fair Haven, a pre-K-8 district with 1,018 students in elementary and middle school, addresses alcohol and drug abuse through its curriculum, in health classes for grades 6-8, and participation in the police department’s D.A.R.E. program. “Our goal is to expand those conversations,” incorporating more students and reaching out to have greater inclusion of parents, Ribon said. He wants to make them “more aware” of this threat and make more current “the information that we share with our youngsters in the middle grades.”
Gramiccioni appeared before an estimated nearly 700 people – students, parents, faculty, staff and local elected officials – at the R-FH auditorium. He offered startling statistics about what his office is seeing in regard to the drug’s use – including 37 deaths this year, likely to exceed 50 in the county by year’s end, and impacting mainly those 26 years old and younger. The use of the drug is pervasive and it is easily accessible.
The program was sponsored by both R-FH and Red Bank Regional high schools and by the Fair Haven, Little Silver and Shrewsbury school districts.
Gramiccioni previously presented the program during a gathering of county superintendents. The feedback he received from them led to the public program, which he hopes to duplicate in other districts.
The prosecutor also hoped to come back with a modified version, aimed directly at students, and have his office work with district officials to incorporate the information into their curricula.
“I’d like to see the schools make this a mandatory instructional block, when they open school in the fall,” Gramiccioni said. He also wants to make it available to parents.
“My big hurdle is making people understand that this is a problem, their problem, not just an inner city problem,” and get families to realize that it exists in affluent suburban communities, Gramiccioni said.
“I think most people in the Two River communities would not think that their children would ever get to that place” of the downward spiral into heroin addiction, Red Bank Regional Superintendent James Stefankiewicz said. “It’s probably perceived as an inner city problem.”
Stefankiewicz spoke to parents afterward and found that the information Gramiccioni put forth was an eye-opener for many.
“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback from parents and students – mostly in the form of shock – that the problem exists and is such a big problem,” Rumson-Fair Haven Superintendent Peter Righi said.
“A lot of the statistics were very shocking,” agreed Rumson resident Bonnie Cooper, whose son attends R-FH.
Cooper said she would like to see the school do more to inform parents – and especially the young people – by gearing programs to them. “Making it more personal, something kids can relate to,” Cooper recommended.
The district’s student assistance counselor, Suzanne Fico, already has been working on having school-wide assemblies and smaller presentations to get information out to students. She has been expanding existing programs, which stress good decision-making, as well as the dangers of drugs and alcohol, Righi said.
“We’re also going to continue to reach out to parents,” probably the most important component in the equation, Righi said. He noted that there will be efforts to get parents more involved and about what to look for while giving them more information about available resources.
“A positive relationship between parents and their sons and daughters is the No. 1 deterrent,” he said.
The school’s athletic department also is playing a role with coaches “real tuned into this,” Righi said. The athletic staff is stressing their accessibility to students and keeping their eyes open.
Stefankiewicz was preparing to bring the topic up to the RBR Parent Advisory Council to seek its approval to bring the program or one similar back for parents.
“The parents of younger kids need to start hearing this,” Righi said.
Ribon agreed, acknowledging that drug use often begins in middle school and even younger. The Fair Haven superintendent plans to draw on his partnership with the Rumson-Fair Haven Alliance for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, a coalition of the school districts and municipal governments, to find resources for additional educational opportunities.
“We’re trying to be as proactive as possible,” Ribon said.
For Gramiccioni, such programs are about moving the ball forward and keeping the conversation going. “This type of education is the key,” he said.
The prosecutor hopes that with enough emphasis from local educators the state Department of Education will adopt statewide initiatives on the problem.