Dee Johnson tiptoed around a life-size model of a teenager's bedroom cluttered with hundreds of hidden warning signs of substance use, depression and eating disorders.
The exhibit revived a series of painful flashbacks. Her oldest daughter, now 21, smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol, eventually turning to heroin and other opioids. Johnson is now pushing to keep her two teen sons from following in their sister's path to addiction.
"We went through all of that with her," said Johnson, walking friends through the room strewn with fake soda cans, aluminum foil and alcohol-infused gummy bears. "I was clueless before, but now I want to be aware."
Johnson was among more than 75 parents who filled the Educational Service Center at the Anoka-Hennepin School District offices this week to learn about the Top Secret Project, a traveling exhibit created to help parents and professionals who work with teens detect warning signs of addiction or other destructive behaviors. The project, led by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, Anoka County and the Minnesota Adult & Teen challenge, walked parents through 150 seemingly harmless items that could be used to stash illegal substances.
As rates of addiction, drug use and overdose fatalities climb locally and nationally, Anoka-Hennepin school officials and health advocates say it is crucial for parents to be aware of the warning signs of drug use and learn about ways to intervene, support and find treatment for their children.
This year, the school district launched a chemical health advisory committee to spread awareness of drug use and prevention. The district said a growing number of its students have reported using e-cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol.
"We know that teens who are using drugs, alcohol and prescription drugs are less likely to do well in school," said Jennifer Cherry, the district's director of student services and chairwoman of the chemical committee. "Our job as a school district is to make sure that we're addressing those issues and creating additional awareness so we can work with parents to curb that use."
At the exhibit, the drug paraphernalia included clothes with discreet compartments, a grinder, a scale, highlighters, an apple, a trumpet mouthpiece and cleaning materials. Health advocates emphasized the idea is to help prevent dangerous behavior before it escalates. They also urged parents to remain calm if they spot some of the items in their child's room. Instead, parents were encouraged to watch for behavioral changes and worsening academic performance.
Meanwhile, in a separate room, Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge community manager Tracee Anderson facilitated a youth discussion group in which a handful of young people shared their stories of drug use with kids in grades six through 12. The peer-to-peer format for prevention, Anderson said, has been deemed effective by health experts.
"We don't tell them what to do," Anderson said, referring to the young audience. "But if we can change their attitude about drugs and alcohol … then we can change their behavior."
Sam Schultz, 23, a recovering heroin addict at Teen Challenge, talked about his 2 ½-year addiction and the troubles it created for him: He lost relationships with loved ones, dropped out of college and eventually landed in prison for possession, a turning point in his life. Schultz is now in his final stages of completing a 13-month program and spends his spare time sharing his experiences with young kids. "Telling schools my story gives me a purpose," Schultz said. "I know that I'm making a difference in these kids' lives."
Diana Hoffman, children's mental health social worker for Anoka County, said parents tend to shy away from tough conversations with their children. Anoka County, she said, has deployed a heroin task force, and by the end of February, the county's Top Secret Project will include all of its seven schools.
"This knowledge will help [parents] start these conversations, which is really important, especially with the epidemic that we have going on in the United States," she said.
Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203