By STEPHEN HUBA
Special to the Salem News
A tour of high schools in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle last year saw U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld II taking his anti-drug message into some strange places.
At Oak Glen High School in Hancock County, he and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Vogrin spoke to fall sports athletes in a plush auditorium, but elsewhere, the conditions weren't so nice.
"We went to this one place in rural West Virginia where we couldn't plug in our laptops. It was pouring rain, and the players were covered in mud. We just went into the locker room and talked to them and it was great," he said. "Just talking to the kids in that setting was extremely effective."
Ihlenfeld, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, said his "Project Future Two-a-Days" program for high schools has gained urgency with the proliferation of illicit drugs, especially painkillers and heroin.
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Demand for one feeds off the other, he said.
"When users can no longer get access to prescription drugs, or can't afford them, they switch over to heroin, which could be as cheap as $4 per dose," he said. "(Heroin) provides a better high and a longer-lasting high, depending on the purity level, so you get more bang for your buck with heroin than with prescription opioids."
Ihlenfeld said his office continues to see signs of heroin's rise as the drug of choice among dealers and users in the Northern Panhandle everything from more drug prosecutions to an increase in overdose deaths.
Some studies rank West Virginia as No. 1 in the country for drug overdose deaths.
Between 2001 and 2010, the number of overdose deaths in Hancock County rose 700 percent from zero to 15. Ihlenfeld's office does not have more current figures.
"We've seen purity levels in the 90 percent range in Hancock County," he said. "The user doesn't know when he puts it into his vein what the purity level is going to be. All he knows is what the drug dealer has told him. If the purity level is higher than what his body is accustomed to, that can lead to an overdose and sometimes a death."
While Ihlenfeld's office does not deal with juveniles, it has prosecuted emancipated teen-agers. "We're seeing people just past the high school age who are involved in using or dealing heroin or prescription pills," he said.
Meanwhile, local school districts continue to grapple with how to make drug policies more effective.
In his years with Wellsville Local Schools, superintendent Richard Bereschik believes the drug problem, especially use of marijuana and alcohol, has gotten better since the 1970s and '80s.
He attributes that to increased parental awareness, mock drunken-driving crash events and campaigns such as "Those Who Host Lose the Most."
"I think the message gets home," he said.
As to harder substances like heroin, Bereschik acknowledged the epidemic that has swept the area in recent years and the risk it poses, although he has no direct experience with Wellsville students using or dealing heroin.
"It seems only a matter of time before the problems on the streets become our problems here," he said.
At Beaver Local Schools, officials are considering a new drug policy that would apply to students in grades seven to 12 who wish to participate in extracurricular activities.
Also, any high school student applying for a parking pass would have to consent to a drug screen. The majority of Beaver Local High School students drive to school, sporting events and other extracurricular activities, said superintendent Kent Polen.
This is the first time such a policy has been instituted at Beaver Local, Polen said. "We had a lot of parents concerned, not because their children were taking drugs, but they wanted to help be proactive and help other children make positive choices in their lives," he said.
The policy stresses prevention over enforcement. "We don't want to catch people doing drugs," Polen said. "We want to deter drug usage. ... We wanted to give them a safe way out."
West Branch Local Schools superintendent Scott Weingart said he is aware of the increase in substance abuse in Ohio and the tri-state area, but that counselors have not reported an increase in student experimentation with drugs such as heroin.
Weingart said the district relies on a school resource officer to keep counselors aware of signs of use, trends and local counseling services.
"We have a plan and people in place to get (students) ... help and assistance if needed," he said.
United High School Assistant Principal Frank Baker said the issue has not been evident in the Hanoverton district, but the administration continues to stay alert to the possibility.
"Vigilance is the key for us right now," he said.
Salem High School Athletic Director Todd Huda said he has not noticed a drug issue with Salem athletes. "Our coaches speak to the kids daily on making the right decisions. A lot of the prevention is done through that," he said.
Athletes have to sign a code of conduct with the understanding that they may be tested for drugs at any time.
Salem Junior/Senior High School Principal Sean Kirkland said drugs are covered as part of the health curriculum. He said they haven't seen a heroin problem in the schools, but they're aware of the devastating effect it's having in the community.
Educators and administrators work with the police department and bring in drug dogs on occasion to walk the halls and check the parking lot. He said it's been years since the dogs have hit on anything.
"We've been very fortunate," he said.
Reporters Richard Sberna, Mary Ann Greier, Kevin Howell and Devin Bezeredi contributed to this report.