There have been a lot of anti-drug slogans and campaigns over the years, from the frying egg "This is your brain on drugs" ads, to "Just say no," to the Carroll County-born "Heroin Kills," and the "DARE to keep kids off drugs" classes in schools.
Whatever successes those campaigns may have realized, they have had their limits: There were 35 deaths from opioid drug related overdoses in Carroll County in 2014, and according to Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene statistics; as of July this year, the total was 22.
Monday morning at Manchester Valley High School, the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office and addiction recovery advocates tried something different.
The auditorium was filled with juniors and seniors and so was the stage, as the teenage members of the FoolProof Improvisational Theatre Troupe acted out a party scene and an accidental overdose.
In addition, a video was shown featuring the young friends and siblings of Sean Schmidt, who died from an overdose of a powerful synthetic opioid called Fentanyl in 2013, just days after his 23rd birthday.
Young people in recovery from heroin addiction and just a few years older than those gathered in the auditorium, also stood on stage to tell their stories.
Brittany Sabok, 24, told those gathered about her time as a softball player at North Carroll High School and as a student who cried the first time she got a B on a test. Within a year, she had gone from trying a little alcohol and marijuana at parties to smoking crack cocaine and getting strung out on heroin.
"I was just telling the kids how I got introduced to opioids in high school at 17 and, you know, the dark road it took me down until I was 23," she said. "I played softball and got good grades and wanted to become a nurse — heroin took every dream and aspiration I had away from me."
This was a key difference from approaches tried in the past, according to Carroll County State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo, allowing people close in age to high school students to simply share their stories about the negative ways drugs had affected their lives.
"The big focus for this was to not come in and simply preach, 'Don't do drugs,' because that will often shut down the dialogue with people in high school," DeLeonardo said. "We took people who were close in age, that they probably could identify with — the star softball player, or maybe the nerdy kid in school — that both wound up with a heroin addiction … when you see someone that close in age that you can identify with, you are much more likely to hear that message."
That's an angle that was clearly missing from the drug education Sabok received while she was in school, she said, and she hopes it may be the missing ingredient in a solution that will keep other teens from following in her footsteps along the path to addiction.
"I remember seeing the 'Heroin Kills' video in health class and the teacher saying, 'Don't do drugs, it's bad,' but I don't think we ever had an assembly with people sharing their experience," she said. "I think if I were to have had someone closer to my age saying, 'This is what happened to me,' I might have thought twice."
Another key difference, according to DeLeonardo, is the assembly was designed to give students resources, actions they can take, people to reach out to for answers if they were having a problem with drugs, rather than just urging them not to try them.
"A big component of this is letting them know who they can call and where they can get help, whether it's for themselves, or maybe one of their friends," he said. "We gave out cards today that have many numbers, whether it's the Health Department or [the State's Attorney's Office], but in particular, for us, Tim Weber, who is our drug education liaison, he is a one-stop shop. You can call him, he will tell you every resource that is out there."
This formula of relatable peers that have walked the path of addiction and recovery and providing actionable information to young people appears to have worked — Sabock said some students came up to thank her and the other presenters — and it's something DeLeonardo is keen on reproducing at all the county high schools throughout the rest of the school year.
"It was very important to me to get us back into the schools," he said. "This sort of program, targeted with assemblies, has not been done for many, many years, and I think it's important to keep that connection."
One other feature of Monday's assembly that DeLeonardo hopes will engage students and get them thinking about making good life choices was poster contest. On Monday, Manchester Valley senior Morgan Albright won $250 — presented as one of those gigantic, door-sized checks — for a poster featuring a skeleton exhaling a green cloud filled with various drug paraphernalia.
Seniors and juniors at the other county high schools will also participate in the contest, and at the end of the year, DeLeonardo said, a grand prize winner will be selected from the pool of winners at each school. The prize will be another $1,000.
"We collect drug forfeiture proceeds, so when we have a case where someone was dealing drugs, we forfeit the money," DeLeonardo said. "For me, it was very important to take that money, and basically invest it back in the students."
Drug awareness assembly dates
Liberty, Nov. 4
North Carroll, Nov. 6
Century, Nov. 24
FSK, Dec. 7
South Carroll, Dec. 11
Winters Mill, Jan. 10
Gateway, Feb. 19