Several dozen kids from high schools throughout Southampton Town spent nearly three hours on Jan. 17 telling the town’s opioid task force their fears and offering suggestions to help alleviate the growing opioid use epidemic here.
Spurred on by the promise they wouldn’t be judged, the kids talked openly about the prevalence of drugs in their schools, the adult party culture that threads through their everyday lives, and the rural boredom and the lack of a future for them here that leads many to try to numb their lives.
The forum was held at the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Southampton, a space offered by Father Constantine Lazarakis in the hopes of bringing more youth into the task force’s ongoing discussions.
There have been 19 opioid overdose deaths in Southampton in the past year, according to Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, up from just five in 2016.
We’ve chosen to withhold the names of students who spoke.
“It’s insanely easy to get drugs and none of them see it as that bad,” said one senior from Pierson High School in Sag Harbor “It’s that kind of the town — people from the city come here to party, to have a good time.”
“It’s part of our daily lives. We have a lot of stuff in our school,” said a senior from Southampton High School who’s lived in Southampton for two years. She grew up in Portugal, she said, where the drinking age is 18 but “you don’t see people wasted.”
“In Europe, no one needs a fake ID,” she said, adding that she did a research project for school that showed that America is one of the few countries where the drinking age is 21. When people can drink at a younger age, she said, they don’t see it as the forbidden fruit that American kids think it is.
She said she doubts she will come back to Southampton after college — between the image-consciousness, insecurity and drug use of her peers here, she knows there are other places in the world where life could be easier. But, she said, many of her peers don’t have the benefit of that perspective.
Other kids shared her sentiment.
Between the high cost of living and the lack of good jobs here, said one Southampton student, “most of my peers don’t intend to return” home.
“People are very lonely here,” she said. “There are not many young people.”
“Kids, especially in high school, have to fit a specific kind of image. Society needs to stop putting this image in our heads,” said one student from Hampton Bays. “You can be who you want to be and still be successful.”
One art student from Pierson High School said that “a lot of people in the art community in Sag Harbor get their inspiration from drugs and alcohol. There’s nothing to do here. It’s so isolated. There has to be more of a creative outlet for people.”
“There’s pretty much nothing to do,” agreed a Hampton Bays student. “There should be more community activities on the weekend.”
Two participants in Narcotics Anonymous in their mid-20s shared their stories of the highs and lows they’d experienced, and how a community of peers who understand what they’re going through was the key to keeping them clean once they decided their lives had to change.
Alfredo Merat helps coordinate Narcotics Anonymous meetings on the South Fork. There are two types of NA meetings, he said — open meetings, where family members and friends of addicts are welcome, and closed meetings, where addicts work through their problems solely with other addicts.
Though Narcotics Anonymous is built on the 12-step principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, Mr. Merat said it is a much newer format and a fresher perspective — until recently, he said, New York drug laws made it difficult for addicts with prior convictions to congregate together.
One writer suggested leaders “not create a ‘forbidden fruit’ example out of drugs. They should be talked about openly, not only within our schools, but also within our homes. Also, teenagers are going to party, we can’t stop that. But we can educate them on the resons why not to use drugs, so they will be prepared when they are confronted.”
“I want to fight my part in an issue that is taking souls away,” said one writer, who included in her message a tribute to Hallie Rae Ulrich, a Pierson High School graduate who died last September. Ms. Ulrich’s grandfather, News 12 Anchor Drew Scott, chairs the town’s Opioid Addiction Task Force, and he said toxicology reports came back saying his granddaughter had died from an overdose of heroin laced with ultra-toxic fentanyl.
“My father asked me to join him at this meeting,” said another writer. “I feel I can contribute a unique perspective as an active voter, who cares about local politics, who graduated SHS and who now is in college. I am here because if I can help, why not?”
“Access to FUN is limited in our community,” wrote another. “Karaoke for grades 10+ or something, date nights, dances…”
“Educate the dangers and state facts,” wrote another. “Kids are rebellious in nature and tend to go against rules on purpose… Bring speakers from NA to school assemblies to tell their own story.”
“It makes me nervous that it’s becoming the “norm” to use drugs and drink alcohol, and it’s crazy just how easy it is to access it,” said another.
At the end of the evening, organizers carefully folded the voluminous sheets of comments to bring them to town hall.
“I’m gonna read every single thing that everybody wrote,” said Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who said he’d like to hold a community vigil in a public park this spring, with music and a chance for people to share stories of love, loss and hope.
“We need to make a commitment to being a community and putting an end to this epidemic,” he said.
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki reminded the kids that, no matter the circumstances, if they are in a situation where someone is overdosing, they need to know it is safe to call 911.
“We’re not going to take action regarding anyone at the scene,” he said. “We will have to take any product that is there but nobody’s going to be arrested. We’re there to save lives.”
“It’s amazing how on-target and brave you are,” he told the kids. “All of you youngsters, keep doing what you’re doing.”