Combating drug abuse and offering safe havens with Superintendent Kathy Metrick

A Pennsylvania town launched a grassroots movement to protect its children in 2014 after several recent graduates overdosed on heroin. Kutztown Area School District Superintendent Kathy Metrick and the Kutztown community formed the Kutztown Strong initiative to raise funds, plan activities and influence local policy. The initiative’s “action groups” deploy this wide variety of resources to establish places where local youth can congregate, feel safe and be creative.

Why was the movement needed in your community?

This particular area has a highway that runs through it – which makes the distribution of drugs easy to the area, with Allentown just next door. One of the many problems is that heroin is so accessible nowadays.

The purest heroin in the country is available in Pennsylvania. It used to be a lot less pure. If you get it uncut, it is a lot stronger than many users are used to. So it might be 37 percent pure and the next night they buy, it is 83 percent pure. The users don’t know and the result can be devastating.

The other problem is what used to cost a lot of money on the street is now quite cheap. For people who get hooked on prescription drugs, it can be expensive; they then switch to heroin.

In Kutztown and Brandywine Heights Area School District, we lost six recent graduates to heroin overdoses between 2012 and 2014. It was a call to action.

The Kutztown Strong action groups play different roles, such as identifying resources that exist in community and what is missing; raising funding; and providing public relations. For example, we found we have a lack of support for people in recovery. We had a conversation with AA and NA to bring them in to offer a group in the community. We have a student assistance program that partnered with Caron – an addiction and behavioral health treatment organization. They were instrumental in starting a parent support group.

We also created a research group which, for example, administered the Pennsylvania Youth Survey to sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grade students in the fall of 2013 to find out what makes our students more or less engaged in school. We have farming in our district. One thing we found was that although the students may be highly engaged with school, they were not involved in school sports because they needed to go back to work on the farm. The action group for student activities found that these students wanted to play sports but informally – so a dodgeball tournament was created to engage these kids.

From the beginning, we identified our target group as people in grades K through 16—we want to keep them safe while they're in school and up through the age of college graduation, whether or not they attend college.

How have the community and state stepped up?

The community reaffirms their level of support all the time. Thousands of dollars have been donated by community members and businesses. In addition, if the police hear about a bad batch of heroin, the school district, the DA’s office and the police collaborate to get the word out to the community.

Our local Kutztown University’s staff and students have been very supportive. A fraternity at the university has even adopted us. They have members on our board and officiate at events. These university students were in charge of the rules at our recent capture-the-flag-in-the-dark game for our students. They have started a GoFundMe account to make donations to Kutztown Strong and whenever they have a fundraiser, they donate money to us. The university also has a substance abuse program that gives us advice for our programming.

The first grant we received for Kutztown Strong was in January from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The Council on Chemical Abuse was instrumental in helping us write that grant, for which we received $20,938 for the “mobilizer” position. The mobilizer person is trained through Communities that Care, which is an organization that focuses on prevention science for better behavioral health outcomes. Right now, our mobilizer's primary focus will be on helping us evaluate our risk and protective factors for which we gathered data through the Pennsylvania Youth Survey. We, as well as the university and the borough, also received grants from the state’s Liquor Control Board.

We used the $40,000 grant in the high school for educational activities and programs for students against destructive decisions – such as special counseling services, interventions and curriculum development.

How has the program grown?

We needed to engage more middle school students. Although overseen by a middle school teacher and high school language arts teacher, our Cougar Chronicle publication is written by middle and high school students for elementary students. The sponsored publication focuses on gently talking to the elementary kids about the importance of making decisions and positive ways that kids can be involved rather than talking directly about addiction.

Cougar Chronicle goes far beyond the adults working together. We are building the capacity within our young people to intervene with each other. In this particular instance, our secondary students are working to help our elementary students develop the skills to make positive decisions.

We host various events that offer our young people a fun, safe environment and something to do. We have movies in the park and capture-the-flag-in-the-dark games as well as a dance mini-thon created by our high school student council. They actually raised $24,000 at that one event.

We don’t have a youth center here in town but the public library has donated use of a room to “Oasis,” a place where middle schools students can go to hang out. Community events such as the Kutztown Kruizz car show and Battle of the Bands raise funds for the Kutztown Strong movement. A monthly Kutztown Strong meeting keeps everyone focused while a weekly AA/NA Young Peoples meeting helps struggling youth.

What results have you seen?

It's difficult in this field to demonstrate gains, because we don't have data on the number of students involved in drugs except through the Pennsylvania Youth Survey survey. We hope to see a decline in substance use as we implement that survey over the next five or six years.

As the word about Kutztown Strong becomes ubiquitous, students are much more aware of the community's resources, values and processes. Sadly, we still have students who are in need of rehabilitation services. On the positive side, we are starting to see some students request those services.

The fact that we have students active in making decisions within the action groups and at the board level is key to our success. When Congressman Charles Dent facilitated a panel discussion among health and law enforcement professionals on the topic of substance abuse at our high school, he and his staff were struck by the obvious presence of students at the event.

It’s sad to have this opportunity. Because of the tragedies that we have experienced, we have mobilized to create a community.