Dying for drugs: How heroin took hold in Portage
Chris Miller, of Kalamazoo, holds a photo of his son, Devlin, who was 21 years old when he died of a methadone overdose in 2004 in Portage.PORTAGE --The first hint came in spring 2004, when a student tip led the Portage Central High School principal to search a car in the senior parking lot.
Eric Alburtus found a spoon crusted with a hard, brown glob.
"I didn't even know what it was," Alburtus said. The car owner "told me it was heroin."
The discovery rocked Alburtus.
"Obviously, I'd seen alcohol on campus. I'd seen marijuana," he said. "But this was the first time I'd ever seen a hard drug of that sort.
"So we suspended her, and then we did what a lot of schools do. When she came back, we pretended it never happened."
• Sunday, Aug. 10 - Dying for drugs: Toll rises among young in Kalamazoo area
• Aug. 2 - Medical examiner urges systematic tracking of overdose deaths, drug-related emergencies
• July 29 - Citizens offer ideas to curb drugs; Portage residents respond after heroin overdose death
• July 11 - Portage school, city officials meet to address substance abuse issues
• July 3 - Hundreds gather to remember actress Amy Bousfield's spirit
• June 28 - Portage actor, 18, dies from drug overdose
The incident remains the only time Portage Central officials have found heroin at the school, and it did spur a harder look at student drug use and school policies, Alburtus said.
But what initially seemed a problem confined to five or six upperclassmen was actually the startup of a heroin network, a deadly scourge that continues to kill Portage young adults.
Although illegal drugs are everywhere, Portage stands out in Kalamazoo County.
A Kalamazoo Gazette examination of overdose deaths in the county since 2003 found Portage victims tended to be younger and were the only teenagers dying of heroin.
In the past four years, six former and current students of Portage Public Schools have died from a heroin overdose, including four since December.
Another death of a former Portage student, a July fatality near Detroit, remains under investigation.
The toll doesn't end there.
Teen survivors of heroin addiction have cycled through the criminal-justice system and rehabilitation.
Some families have moved their addicted children to other cities and states in hopes of giving them a fresh start.
No hard numbers are available, but officials, parents and users estimate up to 30 Portage teenagers have been part of the drug network over the past few years.
The stories are heartbreaking.
One overdose death involved a state forensics champion. Another overdosed 15 months after surviving a car crash that killed three of his classmates.
An honors student, who has since recovered from her addiction, paid for her habit by performing oral sex in exchange for money in the woods behind Portage Central.
Some families have found their credit cards stolen and belongings pawned by their children who were in search of money to maintain a heroin habit.
In June, 18-year-old Amy Bousfield, a star in Portage Central's theater program, died of a heroin overdose a few weeks after her graduation.
In July, Amanda Teeple, 17, a former Portage Northern High School student, died in suburban Detroit of a suspected overdose that remains under investigation.
Another 17-year-old, Carrie Wickham of Portage, has been charged with supplying the heroin that killed Bousfield and is facing a possible prison sentence.
What's happened in Portage is "just like a virus" that starts with infecting a person or two and turns into an epidemic, said Dr. Michael Liepman, a Kalamazoo addiction psychiatrist who has treated some of the Portage addicts.
That the seeds of teen heroin addiction landed in Portage rather than elsewhere seems to be somewhat incidental, officials agree.
"But those seeds landed in soil that was too fertile," Alburtus said. "You have kids here with too much time, too much disposable income. You have busy parents and children without a lot of supervision. Kids who have their own cars.
"You put good kids into the right situation, and they can make some incredibly horrible, nightmarish decisions."
Trend of younger users
There are many what-ifs in looking at the causes of Portage's heroin problem.
What if Kalamazoo wasn't a college town?
What if Portage Central hadn't accepted a certain pair of transfer students?
What if the Portage community was less affluent?
What if that initial group of users at Central were less popular?
None of these conditions would have mattered if heroin had remained a middle-age affliction in the Kalamazoo area.
Liepman said that when he first moved here in 1996, "heroin addicts were 35, 40, 45 years old."
Then the age started creeping lower. By 2003, the psychiatrist was treating students at Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College for heroin addiction.
That group was young enough to socialize with high school students, which Liepman surmises is how heroin arrived at Portage Central. Alburtus said that theory makes sense to him, knowing the initial Central students involved.
The observation that heroin and other opiate abuse steadily moved down the age ranks is supported by county death records.
In 2003, none of the overdose deaths involved a teenager or young adult. In 2006, a 19-year-old and five people in their 20s died of an overdose.
Portage Central's initial group of five or six heroin users included two students who transferred to Central after exhibiting behavior problems at another local school.
One of the transfers was the girl caught with heroin in her car, Alburtus said. Instead of leaving their troubles behind, as their parents had hoped, the transfer students befriended several other Central students and together the group took their drug use to a new level.
Alburtus said that original group of students had social influence and "a lot of relationships with a lot of kids." Also fueling the situation, Alburtus and others said, is the makeup of the school community.
Portage Central serves some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the county.
Those high-achieving parents are a reason that Portage Central has the highest average ACT scores among the region's public high schools.
Dawn Wagner, a Portage Central parent who has led the drive for substance-abuse awareness, said the success and affluence of Portage parents is a factor in the heroin problem.
"You've got two-income families, and because both parents are working, kids are home alone," Wagner said. "Because of the dual incomes, kids are provided the cars, the money, the cell phones they need to access the drugs. I don't think it's the only reason for the problem, but I think it contributes."
The mother of a former Portage Central heroin user, who did not want her name used to protect her child, offers an additional observation.
"What I've heard is that heroin wasn't as big at Northern because Central students have more money," the mother said. "The drug dealers targeted Central because the kids had more expendable income."
During 2005, it became apparent Portage had a group of teenage heroin users who were sucking other students in. "You had kids introducing the drug to other kids as a recreational thing," said Sgt. John Blue, of the Portage Police Department. "They had their own little network."
A hit of heroin can be had for as little as $5 or $10, Liepman said, although a full-blown habit can cost hundreds of dollars a week, or even a day.
He said addicts usually start out snorting the drug, but then move to injecting or smoking it to produce a faster, more intense high.
The heroin found in the car at Portage Central High School was cooked on the spoon and injected.
"There's a certain fear associated with heroin," Liepman said.
But, he added, "There can be very intense social pressure to participate. You're friends with someone and if you want to stay friends, if you want to be part of the inner circle, you have to do this. That's what causes it to spread."
While some people just experiment with heroin, Liepman said, others become addicted. Especially vulnerable are those with underlying mental-health issues or a family history of substance abuse.
All of the former Portage Central students who died from a heroin overdose suffered from attention-deficit disorder or depression, Alburtus said.
Liepman said the Portage teen heroin addicts he has treated have had a mental-health diagnosis or acute family problems.
It's also important to recognize, officials said, that Portage's heroin network is a small subset of a much larger group of teenage substance abusers. Some worry that adult tolerance or naivete about teen alcohol use have helped lay the foundation for the heroin problem.
"The (heroin) deaths are horrible, but alcohol is much more of a problem in terms of number of kids," said Ric Perry, an assistant superintendent of Portage Public Schools. "And the thing is, nobody starts out on heroin."
Wagner said many Portage parents assume children who get good grades must be staying out of trouble.
What they don't realize, she said, is how crafty some teenagers can be in hiding substance abuse, or how quickly teenagers can cross the line from weekend drinking to more serious drugs.
"Some things, like alcohol or pot, you can do one time and walk away," she said. "But heroin grabs you pretty quickly."
A recovering teenage addict, who asked not to be identified, detailed her own path to heroin.
"Portage is a small community, and there's not much to do here," she said. "I got bored of going to movies, and wanted to do something more.
"I didn't start off as a full-blown heroin addict," she said. "I started with drinking and smoking weed," before classmates introduced her to harder drugs.
Then the addiction took over. "It completely takes over your life," she said. "I've hurt my family beyond belief."
Role of schools, parents
When Wagner got involved with substance-abuse issues in fall 2004, "there were absolutely" reports of drug use on Portage Central grounds, she said, but she didn't hear mention of heroin.
"It was marijuana, it was cocaine," she said.
Although Wagner said she and other parents heard stories of drugs being used "in classrooms, in the cafeteria, in bathrooms, in cars," district officials said they were never able to confirm those reports.
Still, Portage school officials overhauled their drug-treatment and enforcement programs.
During the 2005-06 school year, new reforms implemented included monthly visits by drug-sniffing dogs, harsher penalties for possession and use coupled with treatment options, and regular substance-abuse information meetings for staff and parents.
Wagner said it's her sense that drug use on school grounds has been largely eliminated but that prevention efforts are "never 100 percent" effective.
Asked if Portage school officials should have moved more quickly to address the heroin problem in 2004, Alburtus said he's not sure what they could have done.
"That implies there's a silver bullet, and I don't know there is one," he said.
School officials also said there's a limit to their ability to stamp out substance abuse.
One problem is that most of the activity occurs away from campus. "I don't think I ever used at a school," the recovering addict said. "We'd leave and go elsewhere."
And even when the district has expelled students for substance use, those teens typically remain in the community. So while expulsion helps keep drugs out of schools, it does little to disrupt the drug networks.
Most of the heroin deaths weren't on district administrators' radar because the students had already left the school system, officials said.
Blue, the Portage police sergeant, said schools aren't the source of the problem and shouldn't be expected to solve it.
"Where's this happening?" Blue said. "Kids are dying at home, at a friends' house, upstairs in the bedroom. .... Law enforcement is one segment of the solution. Schools are another segment. But parents are a huge segment.
"Parents need to know what's happening at home, what's happening when their kids are with friends, what friends they are running with, who's the leader and who's the sheep of the group."
Families do need to stay connected with their children, the recovering addict said. "Some parents are so naive."
But she also said police should crack down on drug dealers and businesses buying jewelry and other valuables from teenagers who are pawning family goods to raise money for their habits.
As for the schools, the young woman suggested Portage high schools bring in former addicts to warn students of the dangers of drugs and sponsor support groups for substance-abusers.
Even then, she's not sure what could have prevented her from using heroin.
"As a teenager, you think you're invincible," she said.
"It's sad because I've lost so many friends, and I don't know that it's ever going to stop."