South Plainfield schools aim to educate students about opioid addiction

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Assistant Principal Robert Richkus tried to connect with teenagers at South Plainfield High School during a comprehensive assembly on opioid addiction.

“Your classmates are dying from these addictions,” he said.

Did they get it? How do you explain that 175 people a day die in America from opioid overdoses. Marge Drozd, a nurse and manager of Community Health Services at St. Peter’s Hospital, pointed to seated sections to make a point.

“You will die on Monday. You guys over here will die on Tuesday. And you guys will die on Wednesday, right?” she said.

Shocked murmurs from students echoed throughout the auditorium. This, they get. The innovative program launched by St. Peter’s University Hospital brought together a small task force comprised of a nurse, police chief and a mom who lost her daughter to opioids.

“There were 781 drug overdoses in New Jersey in 2014. My daughter, Barbara, was one of them,” said Spotswood parent Jean Stevenson.

Stevenson, talked about her child, a clarinet player, cheerleader, and after doctors prescribed her opioids for back pain — an addict.

“She was just a regular kid, and I know there’s more regular kids just like her out there,” she said.

Wednesday’s message: opioid addiction afflicts all levels of society and the epidemic’s expanding. Middlesex County saw heroin overdose deaths spiral 77 percent from 46 in 2012 to 60 in 2015. But there’s hope and help. Every hospital in Middlesex County has addiction recovery coaches on call, and in six months they’ve achieved a 50 percent success rate in getting addicts into treatment.

“We’re throwing things at you and you go, ‘I get it.’ You don’t get it. Yet,” said Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski.

Zebrowski promised them police attitudes are shifting, so reach out.

“You don’t get in trouble. They don’t get arrested. But what they can do is get the help that they need,” said Zebrowski. “I think law enforcement is starting to recognize this is really not an enforcement issue. This is really a health issue, and we’re just a partner in trying to eradicate the crisis.”

It’s a crisis that the medical community helped enable by overprescribing opioids, Drozd told students. She advised them, just because a doctor hands you a prescription, doesn’t mean you should take it.

“Because I’ve heard too many stories about the wisdom tooth being pulled or a sports injury where they get their first dose of the opioid and because of the addictive power of the drug, it goes into a deeper issue,” said Drozd.

In the end, the kids got it.

“There’s been a few overdoses in town, and people don’t really feel it if you just see numbers,” said South Plainfield High School junior Sarah Gwiazda Jr.

“You see it in real person and you’re like, ‘Wow. This is real. This is happening.’ You have to actually pay attention to it,” said Dania Mohtadi, a senior at South Plainfield High School.

The task force says it wants these kids to be what they called, “narcotics naive,” or bodies that never experience opioids. They say there’s no totally safe way to be exposed to something that addictive.