Like many in my upper middle-class community, I felt that my family was immune from drug addiction, but when my daughter was a senior in high school, we discovered that wasn’t true.
At Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia my daughter was arrested for having a can of beer in her locker. It seems that she was drinking at school, the Student Resource Officer (SRO) was notified, her locker was searched, she signed a confession, and she was arrested, all before I, as her mother, was even notified there was an issue at school. As a result, a judge sentenced her to a drug treatment center where she ended up being introduced to heroin by her new friends.
Somehow my daughter was able to graduate from high school, but the next eight years were traumatic for her and our family as her addiction spiraled out of control. Over those eight years she attended numerous treatment facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and recovery houses. How many? I can’t say – we stopped counting at twenty-five.
During those years, my daughter lost many friends to fatal overdoses. Once, my daughter was abandoned on the side of the road instead of her “friends” calling for help, because they thought she had died from an overdose and were afraid to be implicated. Through some miracle, she was administered naloxone (an opioid overdose treatment), was taken to the emergency room, and survived her overdose. She entered recovery….again. There, she had some friends relapse and discovered a roommate dead from a fatal overdose.
Despite all of these crises, our family has been one of the lucky ones. Not only did our daughter survive an overdose, but she eventually found recovery and is now a successful professional working on an undergraduate degree. I don’t know why our family was spared when so many others lost their loved ones. I thank God every day that we have this time with her.
Parents ask me for advice about their own child who is using dangerous drugs. I don’t have a solution for them, but I can share some of what I learned through our experience:
Tough Love did not work: Early on we were told to use “tough love” but trying to control someone using physical violence, abuse, or humiliation did not sit right with us. Not only does that approach not work, it can exacerbate the problem because drug use is often used as self-medication by people who experienced trauma or who are in mental anguish.
Setting Boundaries were critical: We had younger children, so for their safety and our peace of mind we set boundaries on what we would and would not accept, such as the conditions under which our (then) adult child could live in our house, and what would happen if the conditions were not met. Sometimes she failed, but we tried to soften her landing while keeping our boundaries intact.
Unconditional love underwrote her success: The biggest realization we had was that we had to keep loving our daughter unconditionally for who and where she was in her life, whether or not she could stay away from drugs. This was hard. It took time and practice for our family to do this. Nevertheless, it was clear to us that loving a person where they are, without conditions, is one of the most important ways to help someone with a substance use disorder. It is possible to show them love without enabling their self-destructive behavior.
As of 2020, SROs are not allowed to question and arrest students without a parent notification. Surely this change has protected students from what happened to my family. Hopefully, it has also slowed the school to prison pipeline fed by arrests in high school.
It is painfully clear from our experience that communities must carefully consider the role and training of SROs in their schools. If the role of SROs is to both protect and nurture students, SROs can be a positive force in the schools. However, if SROs role is to arrest or discipline students who are themselves victims of addiction without offering opportunities for counseling, intervention, and support, then they will become part of the problem rather than part of the solution to addiction and drug overdoses.
In recent years substance use has become prevalent in high schools, and the number of both fatal and non-fatal overdoses have skyrocketed, traumatizing communities and bringing unbearable pain to affected families. We must find ways to better protect our children from substance use disorders and addiction, but also, we also to protect them from the harm that can come from overly aggressive law enforcement.
If you would like to hear another Virginia parent's perspective about the opioid crisis, SROs, and violence in schools, please click here.
Further Resources about Opioids and Substance Abuse in Teens
Fairfax County Public Schools. Webinar and resources
Schools Respond: Substance Abuse in Teens Panel Webinar. Northern Virginia Family Network
Consejos para adolescentes: la realidad sobre los opioides. US Department of Health and Human Services. (2019–Spanish version)
Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools. Justice Policy Institute. (2022)
Evidence-Based Resources About Opioid Overdose. US Department of Health and Human Services.
Healthy School Success Stories: Upshift Program. Deschutes County, Oregon. (2022)
Opioid Overdoses Continue; Learn How to Get Help. Fairfax County Government. (2023)
The Role and Preparation of School Resource Officers. D.A.R.E. (2021)
Tips for Teens: The truth about Opioids. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019)