Heroin use front and center at Virginia Beach schools event

Look in the eyes. It’s the best indicator if a person is using drugs, a panelist told the crowd Thursday at a Virginia Beach Schools event on heroin and painkiller use.

If a person is high, said Dr. K. LeGree Hallman from Meridian Psychotherapy, their pupils will be pinpoint dots; if a person is withdrawing, the pupils will be large.

Virginia Beach Public School and the Protecting Children Foundation sponsored an event to educate the community on the dangers of heroin. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
Virginia Beach Public School and the Protecting Children Foundation sponsored an event to educate the community on the dangers of heroin. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

The advice was part of a panel discussion at the Convention Center that drew Virginia’s attorney general, a school board member who lost a daughter to drugs and others to address a rise in heroin deaths in Virginia Beach.

“We need an all-hands-on-deck approach right now,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring told parents, students and community members at the event, which was titled, “Dead Serious: The Street Drug That’s in Your Medicine Cabinet.”

So far in 2015 in Virginia Beach, 135 people have overdosed on heroin, and 33 have died, said Police Capt. Frank Genova. That’s up from 56 overdoses and 10 deaths in 2014, and 76 overdoses with 23 deaths in 2013.

One of those deaths in 2013 was Caitlyn Weems, the daughter of Virginia Beach School Board member Carolyn Weems. Weems said she helped organize the event to educate parents, so they don’t lose a child, too.

The story of Caitlyn Weems was shown as a part of “Heroin: The Hardest Hit,” a documentary detailing the stories of Virginians and their battle with addiction. About half of the 40-minute movie was played for the audience.

Caitlyn’s sister, Connelly, also sat on the panel. The recent high school graduate said parents have to talk to their children about the dangers of drugs, because those children are probably being exposed to drugs at school.

Connelly Weems said she could walk into almost any high school and find someone who could connect her to a dealer of prescription drugs or heroin.

Local organizations set up tables outside the event where attendees could ask questions and gain access to resources. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
Local organizations set up tables outside the event where attendees could ask questions and gain access to resources. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

“It’s so easy to get drugs in our school system,” she said.

Stas Novitsky of the McShin Foundation, a peer-to-peer recovery organization for people battling addictions, said parents should could keep a close eye on their children, perhaps by putting a GPS tracker on their cars or checking their text message and call histories.

He and Dennis Southers, a substance abuse counselor and educator for the city, also said parents should search a child’s room if they suspect they’re using.

“Kids don’t have a right to privacy from their parents,” said Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle, another panelist.

Stolle said work is underway to start a drug court system in Virginia Beach in the spring.

Weems, Hallman and Novitsky all stressed that many teenagers who use heroin often get started with painkillers. Novitsky called for law enforcement agencies to start holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for some of the addiction problems.

Panelists answered questions on how to help those with addictions. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
Panelists answered questions on how to help those with addictions. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

Painkillers were the gateway drug for Caitlyn Weems. She suffered multiple injuries playing soccer, and the doctors kept increasing her pain medication. Carolyn Weems said soon her daughter couldn’t live without the drugs; when the painkillers became too expensive, she turned to a cheaper high — heroin.

Herring and Genova, the police captain, listed ways the state and local law enforcement are trying to crack down on the drug use, but they said those efforts are not enough.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this,” Genova said.

Herring said prevention has to start at home with parents and guardians, because when drug use reaches doctors or the police, it might be too late. He warned against the notion that such drug use is not happening in their communities or in their cities, because it is.

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