Speakers at TPHS Red Ribbon Week share personal stories about the devastating impacts of drugs and alcohol

Torrey Pines High School held Red Ribbon Week recently, including packed assemblies with powerful speakers about the heartbreaking impact drug and alcohol abuse has had on their lives.

The theme of the week, organized by Peer Assistant Listeners (PALS) program advisor Don Collins and PALS student leaders, was: “You don’t have to be in the fast track to be a part of the race.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving provided a wrecked car to be on display on campus and PALS students decorated the campus with posters and stenciled 28 parking spaces in the parking lot to signify how 28 people die every day in this country as a result of drunk driving. One in 10 high school teenagers have admitted to driving while intoxicated and last year 10,000 people were killed in drunk driving crashes.

Collins told the students that he knows that a poster alone is not going to keep a kid from using drugs or drinking and driving — it is all about stopping to think and making the right choices.

“I want you to understand that the decisions you make every day affect the rest of your lives but also impact the lives of people you don’t know,” Collins said. “You could create a lifetime of heartache if you choose to get behind the wheel and drive drunk.”

The students heard from speakers such as Shawn, who became an alcoholic by age 16 as a way to deal with the pressures in his life. He would drink until he passed out and drove drunk on a regular basis, even to school.

“It was my decision to drink…I didn’t think I was hurting anybody,” Shawn said. “But I was tearing my house down.”

Shawn’s “party” lasted until 2006, when after a night of drinking and using Xanax he got behind the wheel to drive. Driving the wrong way on a street, he hit another car head-on, a car with a 21-year-old new father as the driver. The accident crushed the driver’s pelvis and he nearly died. Shawn woke up in the drunk tank and said he couldn’t believe he was in there.

“I thought it was a dream, I didn’t think it was real. For the first time in my life I realized my actions and choices affected someone outside of myself,” Shawn said.

Shawn had to go through legal issues as well as sort through his own issues and find his identity outside of drugs and alcohol. He went on to graduate from UC San Diego with a degree in chemistry — he is now a research assistant at a biotech company in Sorrento Valley, working on stabilizing HIV particles on paper, something that could save millions of people in Africa. Shawn is also hoping to attend law school to study pharmaceutical law.

“Addiction is not about how smart you are,” Collins said. “When you start doing drugs and drinking alcohol early in high school, your dreams and goals all go to the side.”

Speaker Michele Eastland shared the other side of Shawn’s story with an incredibly emotional presentation about her “baby cousin” Elaina Ortiz, who was seven months pregnant when she and her baby were hit and killed by a drunk driver on New Year’s Eve 2010 when she was helping a friend with car problems on Interstate 805. She was 21.

The driver’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit and didn’t realize what he had done until eight hours later when he woke up chained to a hospital bed.

“Because of his choice, because what he chose, she would never be able to experience motherhood. We will never see her baby walk, we would never hear him talking. He would be 5 [today],” Eastland said, circulating the gym showing photos of both the crash scene and the morgue, the only time mother, father and baby were together as a family. “This is very real. The driver has a release date. We are the ones left with a life sentence.”

As math teacher Gary Miner said, the assemblies were powerful and he could see the impact on students as they heard the heartache and sadness that the speakers shared.

“It’s so important for our students to hear from these speakers to get them to really consider their decisions,” Miner said. “As a parent, I want my kids to be independent and make smart choices. I really think these assemblies give teenagers the information they need to help make them those right choices.”

Students given a DEA agent’s perspective

Red Ribbon Week also featured a presentation with a real life “Narco,” DEA agent Rocky Herron.

“I am completely moved by Michele’s talk,” said Herron, a DEA agent with 25 years of experience “We have the same damn message: You have to think about your choices.”

Herron said the USA is the biggest drug-consuming nation in the world — he wouldn’t have a job without the country’s drug use.

“A lot of people don’t like the DEA. They say ‘Let me do what I want’ but sometimes the things we do hurt other people. It will never impact just you,” Herron said, noting the terrible violence seen in Mexico is a result of the drug trade. He said the heads of cartels pay killers to murder cops and judges and the guy planting bombs in Afghanistan was paid by American and European drug dealers.

He said every significant social ill has a direct connection to substance abuse — be it crime, poverty, domestic abuse, child abuse and neglect, and broken families. He said the worst thing he’s ever seen in his life is the children who are abused because dad is high or because mom can’t get high.

“Your choice to consume drugs will affect you, your family, your community, your country and even other countries,” Herron said. “I’ve had to arrest far too many former students of Torrey Pines for dealing or for crimes committed for drugs. And it all started here when they were young, strong, living at home and thinking they were invincible.”

He spoke about meth, showing disgusting images of a meth lab raid, the toxic chemicals that people choose to put in their bodies. He talked about marijuana, which he said “makes you stupid.”

“San Diego is full of young people who can’t stop smoking weed,” Herron said. “It doesn’t rob lives in the same way that drugs like meth will, but it steals your dreams and motivation.”

He pointed to research that shows that marijuana use can result in a smaller brain and that is a risk young people should not take as their brains are still developing.

“If you add chemicals, your brain will not grow in the same way. How can you expect to put substances into your body and not damage your brain growth?” Herron asked. “The choice will always be yours and so are the consequences.”

Herron’s biggest target is the abuse of prescription drugs, which took the lives of 47,000 people last year, an increase of 7 percent from the previous year. Collins said he has sadly seen the effects of prescription drug overdoses first hand, losing current and former students — he often thinks about “Cameron, Ian, BJ, Archie, Chris, Charlie, Alex” and it makes him sad because there are many more he could name.

He showed a video with faces of all the young people in San Diego who have died from overdoses to painkillers — students from Torrey Pines, La Jolla High and La Costa Canyon. Herron said they all used and were certain they could stop when they wanted but they were wrong, now they are gone and their families left behind will never recover.

“Kids need to get the message that nobody plans on overdosing,” Collins said. “If a kid starts using opiates in any form recreationally, it’s not if you’ll overdose, but if you’ll survive when you eventually do.

My advice for young people when it comes to drugs is not even once. Find the courage to be yourself and work through the struggles and difficulties in life with support and connections so you can go for your goals and live your dreams.

“My job is to take the person who’s selling this poison and put them in prison. These are evil people.” Herron said. “I’m as passionate about my job as I was 25 years ago.”

As a DEA agent, he worked in Bolivia in the late 1990s, working day and night with the local law enforcement trying to solve the drug problem. He said he learned how the country could not get themselves out of the “cesspool” they had created because too many Americans wanted to use drugs.

“It’s an endless job,” he said.

He turned to doing speaking engagements at high schools to try and attack the problem from another angle.

“This is my 299th presentation and I’m proud of that. I have 1,000 more that I want to give,” Herron said. “I’ve spoken to 34,000 students and if I’m able to reach one in 1,000 that’s an incredible success. If I’m able to get two students to actually respect themselves and think for themselves, then I have accomplished something…this is the most important thing I’ve ever done as a DEA agent.

“You have the power to make a simple choice: What kind of life do you want for you and your loved ones?” Herron told the students. “You only have one life, one body and one mind. You don’t get do-overs, Be grateful and make good choices.”