Hastings schools host drug education series

Posted 4/20/22

By Brooke Shepherd A collaborative effort among the community has led to a drug education series coming to the middle and high school in Hastings, Minn. The Hastings School District has worked …

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Hastings schools host drug education series


By Brooke Shepherd

A collaborative effort among the community has led to a drug education series coming to the middle and high school in Hastings, Minn.

The Hastings School District has worked alongside the Hastings Police Department, Dakota County Sheriff’s Department, United Way of Hastings (UWH), the Dakota County Drug Task Force, and several other groups to organize a three-part informational series, according to the school district Superintendent Robert McDowell. McDowell said the goal is to support and inform students and parents about the dangers related to illicit drugs.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that fentanyl is the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45, killing about 175 people every day.

“Everyone is feeling like we want to put some additional pieces in action that, from our perspective, have a larger reach than the classroom for kids,” said McDowell. “We know from a school perspective that through COVID and coming out of COVID, we have a lot more mental health situations that we’re dealing with. Students need more support, and this is one way to help do that.”

UWH is a non-profit organization that works to unite people and resources in a variety of ways, from education to financial stability, with a focus on children. Mari Mellick is the executive director. She said this series all started after a mother in the community, Bridgette Norring, reached out to her. Norring had recently lost her 19-year-old son, Devin, to fentanyl poisoning.

“Fentanyl poising can happen to anyone, and its effects are far reaching,” said Mellick. “For Devin’s family, his dad Tom had to go back to work after burying his son. That impacted his employer and his coworkers, as well as him in the workplace. Devin’s siblings had to go back to school, which impacts their classmates, teachers, the school district.”

The first part of the series will be held on April 26. All three sessions will be from 6:30-8:30 p.m. There will be a documentary, called Dead on Arrival, shown in the middle school auditorium. This is followed by a panel discussion, and several resource booths will be available.

The next session will be held on May 3, also at the Hastings Middle School auditorium. According to Mellick, the Dakota County Drug Task Force will be giving a presentation to show people what certain drugs look like. There will be a recovery specialist to talk about addiction, and what a family goes through when dealing with it. A health care provider will also inform the public about what treatment options there are.

On May 10, the final session will take place for parents and adults only. Located at the high school, the event is called Top Secret, and is a simulation of a teen’s bedroom. Mellick said experts will help show parents how to find things hidden in plain sight, such as a vape or a pill.

“This is the first time we’ve done this, and we really want to get people to these events,” said Mellick. “We don’t see fentanyl going away. I want people to be aware.”

An agent and drug recognition expert from the Dakota County Drug Task Force will be present at each session. For this article, they will remain anonymous due to the nature of their work. The agent said most kids are purchasing these drugs from social media apps like Snapchat. It is a common misconception from parents that this won’t happen to their families.

“Most of the time they’re right. But when it does happen, sometimes we hear ‘I had no idea,’” said the agent. “The vast majority of parents and even kids aren’t aware of the significant danger of these things and how easy it is to get ahold of.”

One of the panel speakers on the 26th will be Amy Neville. Neville, who lives between Arizona and California, participated in the documentary Dead on Arrival and shared the story of her 14-year-old son Alexander’s death.

Neville said that Alexander had been curious about drugs since his first drug prevention program in school. He had struggled with some marijuana use in the past and attended a program for mild substance abuse in early 2020. He also had a challenging time through the pandemic doing online school and had been diagnosed with a hyper-focused form of attention deficit disorder.

Once Alexander’s classes concluded in June, Neville said she noticed a difference in her son’s behavior but thought it could be related to puberty. About a week into the change in behavior, Alexander came to his parents on a Sunday night and said he had been taking pain killers he purchased on Snapchat.

“We thought it was someone who had stolen grandma’s prescription and was handing it out among friends or whatever,” said Neville. “We didn’t know there was such a huge counterfeit pill market because it wasn’t being talked about. If we had known, we would’ve taken Alex to the E.R. that night.”

Neville called a treatment center. There was a short wait to hear back about what the options were for her son. That night, Alexander said goodnight to his family and headed upstairs to his room. He ingested a pill, thinking it was the same type he had taken before. However, it was counterfeit, and contained enough fentanyl to kill four people.

The next morning, June 23, 2020, Neville went to wake her son.

“I went to his room the next morning and he was gone,” said Neville. “The paramedics came and worked on him, they took him to the hospital, but obviously it was too late. The worst thing was that his time of death was 9:59 a.m., and I got a call from the treatment place at 10:03 that morning. He was robbed of his chance.”

Neville used Alexander’s funeral to talk to his friends about the dangers of fentanyl and buying illicit drugs. She also started a nonprofit called the Alexander Neville Foundation to continue spreading awareness.

“That’s what I spend my time doing these days. Obviously, my daughter is first and foremost, but right after that is this awareness and education work,” said Neville.

Neville’s daughter just turned 14 years old, the age Alexander was when he died.

“She came to me a few weeks before her birthday and said, ‘I really wish I could skip this birthday,’” said Neville.

As part of her approach to educating the public, Neville has used real life examples to help people understand that this could happen to anyone, even if there is no preexisting drug use. She also said it is not enough for parents to talk to their children, because they may not have the right information.

Bryan Hermerding is the captain of the Dakota County Drug Task Force. He said that there has been a flood of counterfeit fentanyl pills hitting the drug market. Hermerding said the task force and the community have worked hard to organize these informational sessions. He said: “To be honest with you, we’re tired of going to these calls, we’re tired of seeing people overdose when they’re not intending to. We mourn with the community too when they go through stuff like this. We want to raise awareness.”

Registration is recommended  for the events and can be found at www.unitedwayofhastings.org, or by going to www.facebook.com/UnitedWayHastings.