By Jay Cook |
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – Ryan Fisher has been fighting drug addiction for almost his entire adult life. Growing up as a young man without his father in Atlantic Highlands, Fisher says he quickly fell into the grasp of alcohol and heroin.
But standing inside the same elementary school he once attended, Fisher candidly spoke to a crowd of around 20 guests about how he’s changed his life in an effort to save it.
“I’ve been ruining my family’s name for a long time,” Fisher said, bluntly. “But you know what? My mother’s proud of me standing up here trying to fight this.”
Fisher was one of a handful of guest speakers at last week’s Panel Discussion on Heroin at the Atlantic Highlands Elementary School, coordinated by the Highlands/Atlantic Highlands Municipal Alliance. The regional partnership strives to provide education and guidance to residents of the two Bayshore boroughs on Route 36.
Just like in many other towns and counties in New Jersey, the fight is on here to combat the unnerving heroin epidemic. According to the most recent data provided by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, the battle hasn’t eased. As 2017 comes to a close, there have been 110 heroin- or opiate-related deaths in Monmouth County – that’s more than twice the number of highway fatalities on local roadways (44).
Sgt. Steve Doherty of the Atlantic Highlands Police Department said his officers have been busy saving the lives of overdosing residents. In the three years since authorities were first provided Naloxone, a medication used to thwart the effects of an opioid overdose, Doherty said his department has administered the drug 10 times. And while the calendar is about to turn, this year’s count of five deployments has been the highest single-year figure.
Those numbers are on par with what the prosecutor’s office has tallied. There have been 448 Naloxone deployments county-wide this year, 64 more than in 2016.
“The crazy thing is we’ve had it from a 17-year-old to a 65-year-old,” Doherty said. “It doesn’t discriminate.”
Tasked with fighting heroin and other substances in both towns is Heather DiBlasi, the Highlands/Atlantic Highlands Municipal Alliance coordinator. Born and raised in Atlantic Highlands, DiBlasi has been on the front lines since 2009 pushing for student education in the district.
“No town is different than any other town in the Bayshore area,” DiBlasi said.
She said one of the main focuses is continuing partnerships inside the school district, where students from both towns eventually come together in seventh grade at Henry Hudson Regional School. But long before they reach middle school, each student has already received an education at the elementary school level in the dangers of drug use.
Scott Isaacs, now in his 22nd year as the student assistance coordinator for the three district schools, said reaching students and making an impact as early as possible helps them in the long run.
“There are kids where all they need is that spark, all they need is that push, and then they’re off to the races,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to halt.”
Isaacs employs a mix of humor and seriousness with his students in order to create a bond. He said it’s imperative because he’ll be the one closely watching each adolescent throughout their entire early academic lives.
It’s more important than ever, Isaacs said, because drug abuse is affecting younger and younger students each year.
“Sophomores, freshman, eighth graders, seventh graders, there’s been use in sixth grade. It’s a saddening thing because they’re babies, they really are,” Isaacs said. “And there’s so much that comes with alcohol and drug abuse.”
With help from the police department and local nonprofits, students in both towns are being educated early and often. Doherty, the Atlantic Highlands police officer, heads up the Law Enforcement Against Drugs (LEAD) program at Atlantic Highlands Elementary School. According to the school website, an officer from the Atlantic Highlands Police Department will visit fifth grade students weekly to teach lessons in avoiding peer pressure and making appropriate choices.
That is coupled with DiBlasi’s push to produce leaders in the student body. She’ll be taking 24 students from Henry Hudson Regional to the 30th Peer Leadership Conference sponsored by the New Jersey State Elks in February. The weekend-long seminar in Long Branch will host speakers and activities for students to learn necessary leadership skills, DiBlasi said.
Isaacs, the student assistance coordinator, believes creating a sense of family and community inside the school district will help students in the long run.
“We’re two small little communities that when stuff hits the fan, we seem to rally,” added Isaacs. “And that’s what I love about these schools.”
For more information about the Highlands/Atlantic Highlands Municipal Alliance, visit their Facebook page or call 732-872-1843.
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