The cafeteria and the hallways of Havre de Grace High School were a sea of black and white T-shirts Friday, worn by students and staff in honor of the more than 400 people in Harford County who suffered opioid overdoses in 2017, including the 81 who died.
The T-shirts were part of the school’s second annual Take a Stand Against Heroin Day, coordinated by the HHS SADD chapter, or Students Against Destructive Decisions.
“It shows how unified our school is and how we're not afraid to take a stand against anything, as far as bullying, drugs,” junior Jalen Thomas, who wore a white T-shirt, said.
Participants could wear either white shirts with the message “heroin overdose victim” on the front or black shirts stating “heroin fatality.”
People could also write messages on a “Letting Go” display in the school lobby, such as the name of a person who has died or is suffering from addiction, or messages of concern and hope.
“The whole idea is, letting go of the ties that bind with addiction,” Paige Milanoski, the SADD faculty advisor and an English teacher, said.
Thomas, 16, spoke to The Aegis during lunch period late Friday morning. Most of his fellow students, as well as faculty and staff, in the cafeteria wore the shirts.
“Even some of the people that are not wearing shirts, they feel a part [of the program],” he said.
The goal of having students and staff wear T-shirts is to show people what more than 400 victims “looks like, how many people are affected,” Milanoski said.
Havre de Grace High has 617 students, according to the Harford County Public Schools website.
The tally of people who have suffered or died from an overdose in Harford County has been displayed on signs outside municipal police and Harford County Sheriff’s Office buildings since 2015. The tally, based on suspected overdoses to which law enforcement officers have responded, has increased every year for the past three years.
The Sheriff’s Office reported 450 total overdoses, 81 of them fatal, for 2017, an overall increase of 55 percent from 2016 when law enforcement handled 290 overdoses, including 56 fatalities.
There have been 28 suspected overdoses less than a month into 2018, including five deaths, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics.
“Very much so,” Bradley Polk, a 16-year-old junior and the SADD vice president, said when asked if this year’s tally adds a sense of urgency to the Take a Stand campaign.
“The fatalities increasing at such a rapid rate is our concern, so that's why we decided to highlight those this year as well,” Milanoski said.
She said participants did not wear shirts highlighting fatalities last year. There were 437 white shirts and 80 black ones this year.
“It makes me feel like I'm showing everyone you can make a difference in your life,” Gracie Diveley, a 16-year-old junior and SADD president, said. “You don't have to go down the same route [of addiction] your family members did.”
There are plans to bring the program to other Harford County high schools in the coming months, with the T-shirts and letting go display slated for Harford Technical High School, Bel Air High, Patterson Mill High, Fallston High, C. Milton Wright High and ending at Edgewood High School — SADD chapters at each school will coordinate, Milanoski said.
“I feel like too many people have died from heroin overdoses, and there’s no reason to be doing drugs, so I think people should take a stand,” Sierra Briggs, a 15-year-old HHS sophomore, said.
Sophomore Casey Cameron, 16, wore a black T-shirt in honor of Nolan Gallion III, who died from a heroin overdose Jan. 25, 2015. Gallion was a member of the Level Volunteer Fire Company and the Susquehanna Hose Company of Havre de Grace.
Cameron is a probationary firefighter and EMS worker with Level.
“I didn't get to meet him but I heard many things... [Gallion] loved hunting, he was a good guy, good firefighter,” Cameron said.
Cameron said he sees a number of overdose cases on EMS and fire calls.
“It affects every family in some way or the other,” he said of addiction.
Senior Megan Lutz, 17, said her cousin, Josh, died from a drug overdose in 2010 at age 18.
She said her cousin was “always such a sweet kid, but he just went down the wrong path, unfortunately.”
“Drug addiction wasn’t that focused on back then, but I’m glad it is now because it is a really important subject,” Lutz, who wore a black shirt, said.
Lutz is also a member of SADD.
“It’s upsetting that there are so many shirts to fill,” she said.
Jordan White, a 17-year-old senior and varsity football, basketball and lacrosse player, said a relative survived an overdose last year. He said “it hits home,” knowing a loved one is part of the tally on the message boards.
He praised his fellow students for their school spirit and participation in Take a Stand.
“It's just that Warrior pride,” he said. “One person does it, other people went to follow in their footsteps.”
Spanish teacher Amadelis Mattei said every student in her homeroom, which has about 20 students, wore a shirt — at her encouragement.
“I’m very proud of them,” she said.
Mattei said a friend lost her son to a drug overdose about a year and a half ago, and her husband’s cousin, who was involved in the drug trade in their native Puerto Rico, was murdered.
She said she wants her students to understand the wide-ranging impact of drug addiction on people’s families and community.
“They feel like they’re alone, but they're not,” Mattei said.