The tragic death of Lewis Dvorkin, a 15-year-old sophomore at the elite Bronx High School of Science who died of a heroin overdose at his Manhattan home in September, has raised concerns among many parents about teen drug use in the city. Parents are wondering how prevalent drugs are in city schools, what steps parents can take to insure the safety of their child, and how students, parents and schools might prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Dvorkin's family had been struggling for years to help him "redirect his life," according to a New York Sun interview with his mother, Carole Robinson, and 17 year-old brother Nathan.
It is no secret that city teens use drugs -- even “hard” drugs like heroin, cocaine and crack. "When I heard this story, it broke my heart, but it didn't shock me," says Betty Rothbart, prevention and intervention supervisor for the city schools and co-author of Healthy Teens, Body and Soul.
Some schools, she said, have a bigger problem than others. Students and parents say that a park near Bronx Science is a known hangout for drug dealers and users. Parents are cautioned to urge their children to stay away from the park, says Melanie Arwin, the parent of a sophomore at the school. But Arwin, who has two other teenagers who attended other city high schools, says, "I honestly don't think drug use is any worse at Bronx Science than at any other school."
While the Bronx Science student died of a heroin overdose, alcohol and marijuana are far and away the most common drugs used across the city, according to a 2004 city health department report entitled "Risky Business: Health Behaviors of New York City High School Students." The report, based on an anonymous questionnaire distributed to students at 77 schools, found that 35 percent of city high school students drink alcohol and 15 percent use marijuana, while five percent use ecstasy, four percent use cocaine, three percent use inhalants, two percent use methamphetamines, and two percent use heroin.
"Mostly it's booze, grass and occasional hallucinogens," agrees Umar Abdul-Wali, a counselor who specializes in drug issues at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn. Kids in middle class neighborhoods may be more likely to abuse cocaine, he said, while those in poorer neighborhoods might have more access to crack-cocaine.
Abdul-Wali works with kids one-on-one and in groups, and runs acting, singing, and writing groups. "We need to provide environments where students can be free emotionally and not be criticized, that are constructive and not judgmental," he said. "We have to provide positive alternatives, give them something to get excited about."
Keeping kids busy and involved at school is key, agrees Rothbart. "If you have a school with lots of great activities for kids to be involved in that's a protective factor," she said.
There are also things parents can do to address drug use before a problem arises. "Every parent should be educated themselves," said Abdul-Wali. "Parents should attend PTA meetings where these things are talked about." By chatting with other parents at these and other gatherings, parents can find out where youngsters are hanging out or what their curfews are.
Equally important, parents need to find time to talk with their own children about what's happening. If parents are in touch with what is going on in their child's life, they are more likely to recognize changes that might indicate substance abuse. According to Rothbart, these include declining grades, sudden changes in friends, secretive behavior.
Parents looking for drug-related information should check whether their child’s school has a drug specialist, but many of them don't. In Region 1 in the Bronx, for example, only 73 of the 128 schools do, according to an official in the region's Office of Youth Development.
If a school does not have a specialist, “parents should go to the principal and tell him 'we'd like to have more options,'" said Rothbart. The principal can contact the regional experts, informally known as "drug directors," bring in a community-based organization to lead programs or enlist the help of the health education teacher. Many health educators have had specific training in issues of drug abuse. If there is a school-based health clinic, it can be a resource for students and parents. Parents interested in having drug prevention or information workshops at their school may also contact their parent coordinator.
If parents find the school unhelpful, they may contact the drug specialists within their school region. There are also drug-prevention resources available outside of the school system, at organizations such as Phoenix House, Caron Foundation, Freedom Institute and Covenant House.
Parents who fear their children are using drugs should not be afraid to confront them, experts say. "As the worries escalate, then parents need to do whatever it takes to find out what's going on and get the help the kid needs," Rothbart said.
What about kids who know or suspect their friends are using, but are reluctant to confront them? "First off, tell them that you love them. Tell them that you want to see them OK," says Abdul-Wali. "Come from the heart. No one wants to be a rat, but it doesn't have to be punitive. Walk with them -â€“ physically -- to a place where they can get help. Say 'Let's go talk to so and so.'" He says that too often, people voice concern but do not follow through and make sure a person gets help.
"I think kids have got to realize just how dangerous these situations are, and they have to come forward, even if they do that anonymously," Lewis Dvorkin’s mother Carole Robinson told the Sun. "And then adults have to helpâ€¦ not just be angry or just think, 'It's not my child. It doesn't matter. It's not my business.' I think we have to become my brother's keeper."
Inside Schools is taking a poll on your opinion about the extent of substance abuse by New York teenagers and whether you think schools are responsive to the problem.
Middle School Confusion
Parents vying to get their kids into some of the city's most selective middle schools have been thrown a few curve balls this fall.
In the course of a week, officials in District 2 on the Upper East Side first raised and then lowered the bar for admissions into its most selective middle schools.
On October 18, officials in District 2 reversed a policy they had announced earlier in the month that would have required students to score a 685 on both the state's 4th grade math and reading tests in order to be eligible for a spot in one of the district's selective middle schools. While the cutoff scores for programs like Lab School for Collaborative Studies and East Side Middle School were never set in stone, many parents had assumed that the cutoffs would remain at 660, as they have for the past five years.
The district apparently bowed to parent and principal concerns that the new cutoff seemed arbitrary. At a meeting on October 18, Superintendent Anna Marie Carrillo announced that there would be no cutoff score for submitting an application to any District 2 middle school this year, although she said that students who score below a 685 on both tests are unlikely to get into the most selective schools. Carrillo also announced that children can now apply to five schools instead of four, and extended the deadline for District 2 middle school applications to December 14.
There's plenty of frustration among parents trying to figure out how to apply to gifted and talented middle schools like Mark Twain and Bay Academy in Brooklyn's District 21. These schools have traditionally accepted students from across Brooklyn. But this year some officials have suggested that admissions will be limited to Region 7 â€“- which encompasses districts 20, 21 in Brooklyn and district 31 on Staten Island -- although nothing is certain yet. "Everything is in limbo," the parent coordinator at Mark Twain said. "I am telling everyone to call back in a couple of weeks."
This topic page has been adapted from articles that originally appeared on Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.