Heroin claims cause Northfield turmoil

Gary Smith
Northfield Police Chief Gary Smith says he wanted to alert the community to the heroin problem in Northfield. He says it's difficult for his officers to break into these cliques of kids.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

This is the story of a story. It was July 3, and Northfield Police Chief Gary Smith called a press conference about heroin use. Media across the state snatched up the news.

Police said the roughly 150 to 250 users are wealthy white kids aged 15 to 23. Chief Smith says he held the conference to tell dealers in Minneapolis to stop selling to Northfield kids, and to tell residents: keep your garages locked, keep an eye on your kids.

Chris Richardson
Northfield Schools Superintendent Chris Richardson says he had been working with police and other groups because a few students were using heroin, But he was caught unawares by the police press conference, and says the numbers reported don't jibe with his experience.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

Smith admits this news caused an uproar.

"It's like calling a member of your family a name or airing things that are not very desirable," he says.

Did Smith know that calling a press conference the afternoon before a holiday would draw plenty of attention? Probably, he says.

It also got people talking. These are selections read from local blogs, which are bursting with posts:

"But I still believe the issue of boredom is relevant. When I made that statement I was not trying to make a judgement on why kids are bored, but that they are."

"Why is having the exact number so important to so many people? If only 15 people have a heroin problem, does that mean the community does not need to worry or help?"

"We sat down, and we're hearing 150 to 250 students, we're saying our numbers look more like 15. We saw this real disconnect."

"Several of my friends continue to use, although I wish we could all stop. Heroin is an expensive habit. (Never $600 a day.)"

"You didn't know [heroin] would make you feel good? You were so bored you had no choice but to try heroin? Give me a break."

Northfield High School graduated about 300 kids this year, so the claimed 150 users equals about half the graduating class. Several media outlets said the problem centered on Northfield High.

Superintendent Chris Richardson says that's wrong. He was caught unawares by the announcement.

"I read about the press conference at about noon on Tuesday and the press conference was at 2:30," Richardson says.

Richardson says he and other groups have worked with the police on the heroin issue for the past year and a half. Last year at Northfield High, Richardson says 15 students, or about one percent of the student body, got treatment for heroin addiction.

Tim Parker
Drug prevention specialist and former law enforcement inastructor Tim Parker says a lot of affluent communities are naive about drug use.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

"We sat down, and we're hearing 150 to 250 students. We're saying our numbers look more like 15. We saw this real disconnect," he says.

Police say there was miscommunication. Many of the users have dropped out or graduated and aren't enrolled in college. Some are high schoolers, but most are just living in town.

James Lewis isn't a user. He graduated from Northfield High School this year. He says he was shocked by the news. He's since learned about three high school acquaintances who do heroin. He says they're decent kids. One takes classes at Carleton. When asked how are they different from him, Lewis responds: "I personally am pretty involved in the high school. I guess they're not that involved,"

Then Lewis takes a long pause.

"They're not all that different I guess is the right answer."

Many of the identified users have sought help through Omada Behavioral Health. Program Director Sarah Shippy says kids are selling within small cliques. They pool their money to buy heroin or steal Oxycontin from their grandparents' medicine chest and snort it.

"Those who are using heroin estimate that there are more than 150, so you know, who knows, whether it's 100, 150, 200? Somewhere around there," Shippy says. "I can identify probably 50 to 60 kids who are actively using, some on a daily basis, some on a weekly basis and some occasionally."

Shippy is the person who told police about the drug problem 18 months ago, and supplied those numbers. She, too, was unaware of the press conference. She says a few people were irked by that.

Sarah Shippy
Omada Behavioral Health Program Director Sarah Shippy alerted law enforcement to the heroin use in Northfield. She says she can identify 50-60 youngsters who are actively using heroin, and says in turn those users say there are more than 150 youngsters in total in the community using the drug.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

Drug prevention specialist and former law enforcement educator Tim Parker says community leaders may have been against the briefing if they knew what was coming. He says a lot of affluent communities are naive about drug use.

Parker says recently he was doing a drug training workshop with a prominent pastor in the Twin Cities.

"I told the pastor, 'Your high school athletes are using meth to stay strong and stay awake. Your upper-end kids, your alpha kids, as the blogs are calling them, are using.' He looked right at me and he said, 'I don't believe that.' Well, guess what? Six months later here we see it hitting the paper in Northfield," he says.

The Northfield police chief says what's different about Northfield is that when they see something like this going on, they make sure it stops.