Dr. Kevin Haggerty
By Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
West Seattle neighbors, community groups, school leaders and law enforcement trainees gathered on Wednesday night at Denny International Middle School for a town hall discussion focused on prevention of underage substance abuse.
The event’s keynote speaker was expert Dr. Kevin Haggerty, Emeritus Professor for Prevention at the University of Washington, who talked about current challenges and opportunities ahead for families and community members, particularly for vaping and fentanyl.
Opening remarks and introductions were given by Donna Kelly, Coalition Coordinator of Westside HEY. Kelly welcomed attendees and noted that along with representation from area schools and community groups, there were also 12 new Seattle Police Department recruits in attendance. One of the recruits at our table commented that recruits were there to listen and learn about the community, and how they can best serve.
One of the night’s first speakers was Councilmember Lisa Herbold, from District 1 (which includes West Seattle and South Park), who described herself as a passionate grandparent of both a Chief Sealth International High School graduate and a current Denny student:
Speaking about the challenges of substance abuse in the community, Herbold said “the numbers are incredibly sobering,” citing a grim milestone that King County reported recently: In the first quarter of this year, 296 King County residents died of alcohol or drug poisoning. Last year (2022) was a record year with 1,003 overdose deaths, and this year’s number is on track to exceed that by 18%. Specifically among young people, a teen dies of overdose about every 2 weeks in King County, and fentanyl is considered the key cause in most of those. Herbold said it’s important to have real conversations with young people, to teach them how to look out for one another, and to call 911 in emergencies.
Herbold stressed the importance of addressing underlying issues of youth mental health, citing the “state of emergency” actions taken in recent years in Washington State by Governor Jay Inslee and, nationally, by the U.S. Surgeon General. Herbold noted the mental health funding for $500,000 that she worked to procure in last year’s budget, with the funding dispersed between Denny Middle School and Sealth High School in our area, along with Ingraham High School, Rainier Beach High School and Aki Kurose Middle School. Outcomes of that funding include the hiring of dedicated staff and clinicians, support for mental health days and student-led programs, staff training, drop-in counseling and therapy.
Next on the agenda, several leaders from area schools took the floor to share remarks and observations from their respective schools, including:
- Gina Wickstead, Vice Principal at Denny Middle School, who introduced Denny’s counseling team and empasized how crucial a “sense of belonging” is, during middle school years, through groups such as Kingmakers and other initiatives. She also made a point that was later reiterated by other school administrators — that during the school day, it’s important to have cooperation with students in order to effectively monitor school restrooms, because that’s often where unwanted subtance abuse happens. (“Thank you, TikTok,” Wickstead said sarcastically, in reference to negative trends on the social media app.)
- Ray Garcia-Morales, Principal at Chief Sealth High School, who said that the school is “in a better place this year than last year,” adding that he has 3 daughters and is from West Seattle and has “skin in the game” to continue improving. He said that vaping and substance abuse is an issue at Sealth, for a smaller percentage of students, but that “we feel it.” He agreed that bathroom facilities are “hotspots; we’ve had to step up our game and sometimes shut down bathrooms at certain times of day,” and that it takes considerable volunteer effort to make it work. With regard to Sealth’s use of the mental health funding that Councilmember Herbold referred to, Garcia-Morales said that it had been divided into buckets including funds for seasonal re-entry intervention specialists, after-school programming, and efforts to “push-in” to classrooms during school days.
- Nancy Carroll, Assistant Principal at West Seattle High School (along with Ron Knight who joined the WSHS leadership team recently), who noted that WSHS wasn’t part of the group of schools that received additional funding but that “we certainly would like some.” She emphasized that as it relates to issues of mental health and substance abuse, “we need to stop ‘othering’ and instead look at this on a community basis; these are our kids.” Carroll said that getting kids involved with clubs is important, and she called out the work that WSHS activities coordinator Angela Ferda has done in this area. Carroll agreed with prior speakers that school restrooms are an issue, saying “kids who need to use the bathroom are afraid to go in.” She said there is definitely a “sense of urgency” regarding the risks of fentanyl in particular, noting that WSHS recently held a dedicated fentanyl prevention evening session.
- Dr. Robert Gary, Principal at Madison Middle School, noted that, similar to WSHS, Madison wasn’t part of the additional mental health funding, but said the school does have great support system. He said that he takes pride in the Madison community working to try to turn kids away from experimenting as middle school students with drugs and vaping. He agreed with prior speakers’ concerns about restroom abuse, adding that “we’re a big building, with 6 floors” and they’ve had to lock bathrooms in the past to prevent issues. Gary added that he’s been pleased with the impact of a new policy that he began a couple of months ago – if a student is caught under the influence of substances, then the student’s parents must come to school and speak to him directly about the issue. He added “if we don’t do our job, then students inherit some of our issues.”
Next, two of the leaders from the event’s organizing sponsors talked about their groups’ respective work:
- Donna Kelly from Westside HEY gave an overview of their activities, centered around their mission to “promote a healthy and safe community through collaboration, education, and empowerment so that Westside youth can thrive.” The group’s geographical focus is on the areas that feed into Madison Middle School and West Seattle High School. They host tables at various community and school events and curriculum nights, as well as SBIRT support (Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment). They also curate and provide a comprehensive Westside Youth Guide containing resources for young people in the area.
- Drea Jones (filling in for coordinator Lensy Cordova) presented information about the SW Seattle Youth Alliance. The group describes themselves as a “coalition for substance-free youth” focused on the Denny/Sealth/Delridge areas, and their mission is to “promote health and well-being, foster a sense of love and belonging, and prevent and reduce youth substance abuse through compassionate and culturally appropriate collaboration.” Their events include a Skate Club at Denny with about 40 students involved, as well as a billboard design program and a bike safety giveaway event.
Westside HEY and SW Seattle Youth Alliance are both supporters of the DEA’s drug take-back events, the next of which is scheduled for Saturday April 22nd from 10am-2pm at the Southwest Police Precinct (according to Jones, last year’s event yielded 170 pounds of unused prescription drugs). Representatives from both groups also traveled to Washington DC for the national gathering of CADCA (Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America).
Lisa Davidson, Manager of SPS Prevention and Intervention (which supports Westside HEY and the SW Seattle Youth Alliance) then took the floor to introduce the evening’s program, which was presented and facilitated by Dr. Kevin Haggerty from UW.
Dr. Haggerty’s slide presentation is here, and was organized around the theme of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Some of his key points included:
- The Good: Haggerty said his first son was born in 1983, and today (40 years later) the overall landscape for raising kids is better across the board, in many ways. He presented data showing reductions in recent decades for teen pregnancy, crime, incarcerated youth in detention centers, and the use of alcohol and drugs (including smoking and binge drinking). Today, most young people are not using drugs or alcohol, which Haggerty said is a powerful trend when encouraging kids to not use, because the excuse that “everyone is doing it” is simply not true. Haggerty said that vaping among young people hit a peak of popularity in 2018-2019, but has dropped significantly since then. Although some people consider vaping to be a preferable alternative to cigarettes, Haggerty said that vaping is particularly harmful for young people because they tend to have more nicotine and are more addictive – and the best prevention is to never start using in the first place. Haggerty added that there were many other positive trends to be optimistic about, include overall support for social emotional learning and awareness. Principal Garcia-Morales from Sealth shared that the school had a talent show recently, with 1,000 people gathered in the school gym, and it was an amazingly positive gathering (which has been a rare occurence since COVID).
- The Bad: Although most youth don’t use drugs and alcohol, some do start using early and often. Haggerty said that when it comes to prevention, it is absolutely crucial to delay the age at which people start — “the earlier you start, the more likely you are to be dependent.” He noted that the emphasis is less about preventing the use and more about preventing misuse (which gets in the way of normal function). There are negative consequences of underage drinking and nicotine, and research shows very negative impacts on learning when youth heavily use cannabis. Haggerty added that, in some ways, mental health is becoming a bigger issue than drug use. Data shows that “feeling lonely” has become an overall trend among youth (made worse by pandemic) — dating has decreased, as has hanging out with friends. Haggerty also talked about the importance of the transition from high school to college, as young people go out on their own.
- The Ugly: Fentanyl usage is an obvious and serious concern. Haggerty said the equivalent of a classroom of teens dies every week from a drug overdose. Of these deaths, 60% die at home, two-thirds of the time someone else was home, and counterfeit pills were involved 25% of the time. Fentanyl is very cheap ($800 in materials can net as much as $800k) and extremely addictive, and Haggerty said that among users it’s considered “a good high” if it results in a near-death experience. So, although this affects a “very small percentage of the population,” it can be impactful and deadly. Haggerty said that among people younger than 65 years old, there are more deaths from drug overdoses than from COVID. He added that, just last week, the FDA approved Narcan (naloxone spray used for treatment of opioid overdoses) for over-the-county availability. As supplies catch up to demand, the product should be more readily available at pharmacies and ERs. Haggerty stressed that anyone who has a teenager should have Narcan – it’s not a message of mistrust, it’s a message of “I love you too much to let you die” because “we don’t know what’s out there.”
Haggerty talked about “healthy behaviors” and noted that when people are more bonded and connected, then they’re more likely to follow trending acceptable norms (and again, the current norm is to not use drugs). However, it’s important for youth to have the right bonds — Haggerty addressed the 12 SPD recruits in the audience, and said “think about gangs — do they provide opportunities, create bonds, have norms and standards, and teach skills? Yes, so the model goes both ways and we have to work extra hard.” Talking as a family is important. Haggerty joked that, as it relates to his own children, “you can’t imagine what it’s like growing up with me” when his kids asked why it’s so important not to use at a young age, and “so I flip open my laptop and say ‘did you know 80% of students don’t use, so why are you only hanging out with 20% of kids – what’s wrong with you?”
He added that young people need guidelines which are stated simply, in positive terms, kept to a minimum, and enforceable. Give them options to solve problems, leave their dignity intact, and “let them know they have a problem, not that they are a problem.”
Haggerty ended by describing himself as a “hope pusher,” saying “this next generation cares about the future and each other in ways that my generation certainly didn’t,” which is a positive thing for promoting overall well-being for the community.
To close out the evening, Sue Quigley from Madison and Westside HEY talked about the grant money that supported the formation of Westside HEY, underscoring the incredible need in the community. She thanked attendees for coming, and noted that the community’s hard work is worth it: “These are all our kids.”