Carolyn Weems has a message for Arlington parents who think their son or daughter couldn’t become a drug addict. “It’s not if my kids are going to be exposed to drugs,” she said, “It’s when.” For Weems, and her daughter, awareness came too late.
About 250 parents listening to Weems tell the story of her daughter, who died of an overdose, overflowed into the halls of the Central Library on Oct. 12. The topic was not new. Opioid use has been in the headlines. What was new was that Arlington, the suburban sanctuary full of A-plus rated high schools and travel soccer players, is a place where youths are dealing drugs in the school bathroom.
Caitlyn Weems was a healthy, happy, soccer playing youth until she injured herself playing soccer and took the narcotics-laced painkillers the doctor prescribed. “You would never have guessed she was doing drugs,” said Weems. “She looked healthy. There is so much I wish I had known: how addictive opioids are, how easy it is to get drugs, how heroin is like Russian Roulette. It’s not about bad people. It’s about good people from good families. These kids are trying it at parties, in the bathroom; they smoke it, then they snort it, then they skin pop it, and then they inject it.” She added: “You have to have the heroin talk with your kids.”
Captain Jay Farr, the Arlington County police chief, said his officers, as first responders, had some grim statistics to report. “But the most telling of the things I’ve learned, is who it strikes,” he said. “When our office of criminal investigations did the statistics, we learned 90 percent of the users had been prescribed the drug legally. We saw a 67 percent rise in events from 2015 to 2016 and a rise in non-fatal overdoses this year. And this hits every single zip code in Arlington County except one, and it hits all demographics and economic strata.” Farr added that it hits every age group too. While 56 percent of the cases they see are in the 21-35 year old age range, some are older than 66 and some are as young as 16.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos said the idea for having a town hall in Arlington originated in her office, because she gets all the autopsy reports for the county. “I started seeing more and more accidental overdoses,” she said. “When I looked into the problem, I learned there were Williamsburg Middle School kids buying LSD on the dark web — at school — and there were athletes who could not play sports because they tested positive for drug use, and that at Yorktown High School, the principal had to take the doors off the bathroom to keep people from dealing drugs — or doing them — in the bathrooms.” Stamos said APS was also a part of the group that made the town hall meeting happen.
One of the most disturbing stories of the night was from a parent, Ari Garbow, who said he has three children in the Arlington school system. “Nine months ago, I wouldn’t have been here. But almost exactly nine months ago, I was having wine and cheese with friends when I got a call from our two younger children at home, who were in hysterics. They said there were police outside the home with their older brother.” Garbow rushed home to see police cruisers outside his house. “For the next 48 hours, we watched as my 10th grader had to be subdued on the ground, chained to a hospital bed, and put into juvenile detention.”
“We were — and we are — really good parents,” he said. “We bonded with our kids, had good chats with them, did the talks about drugs and marijuana, and heard back from them that they felt they could say ‘no’ to drugs and alcohol and not feel uncomfortable. My son was getting good grades in school, he seemed happy and we had a great relationship. But then, when he was a freshman in high school, we heard from another parent that our son had boasted to their son about being high. When we confronted him, he protested: but it’s legal in so many places.”
Garbow said he and his wife tracked their son carefully after that. They thought they had it under control: they engaged in therapy for him to deal with anxiety and depression, which a lot of youths have in Arlington County. They didn’t smell the strong smell of marijuana anywhere at home. But then, they found out he was doing marijuana daily the first week he tried it, then multiple times a day, then vaping it, then abusing alcohol in the house. They learned that much of the use and purchase of drugs and alcohol took place at school, and that with the lunch money he was given, he had purchased LSD, not lunch.
“We thought we knew everything,” Garbow said, “but when I look back on it, I realize there was no way this kid was going to tell us the truth: he was addicted. My kid was taking his lunch money to school and there was a smorgasbord of drug choices for him to spend it on, instead of food.”
Dr. John Palmieri of the Arlington County Department of Human Services said drug use is common, starting early, becoming increasingly complex and has more serious consequences than it used to. He referred the residents at the meeting to the Risk Behavior Survey filled out by Arlington teens. Risky behavior is up, he said. Consequences are not clear to the adolescent. And the potency of the drugs out there is much higher. He suggested parents be on the lookout of warning signs like fatigue, red eyes, emotional changes, increased argumentativeness, breaking rules, withdrawal, clothing changes, and different friends. But he warned that not all youths demonstrate these signs. For more information, Palmieri recommended the website”Partnership for a Drug Free America” or www.drugfree.org.
APS School Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy addressed the comments of some irate parents who wanted to know why they weren’t better informed about the drug epidemic in Arlington County and its schools. What was the school system doing to keep kids safe? He stressed the importance of education and awareness about the drug issue: the purpose of the evening’s town hall meeting. “The message I want to send,” he said, “is education, awareness, prevention — and that we’re in this together. Schools can do a lot, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Bringing the canines into school (to do drug searches) was a difficult decision; it was painful. But in light of these stories we’ve heard tonight, we don’t feel it was too much.”