This year’s Torrey Pines Red Ribbon Week was one of the hardest and most emotional assemblies that teacher Don Collins said he had ever put together.
It featured a man who was left a quadriplegic after a drunk driver struck him on his bicycle 40 years earlier and three heartbroken mothers of San Dieguito Union High School District students who had overdosed on drugs and died.
One of those who died was Collins’ former student and friend. He said at times the powerful assembly got so heavy that many were uncomfortable but it was essential that these teenagers understand the potentially devastating consequences of drug and alcohol use.
“I am so grateful to our speakers who come here, open their hearts, relive these tragic moments and give our students the gift of their most painful life experiences in order to help our students realize they are making life and death choices when they decide to take pills or get in a car with someone under the influence,” Collins said.
For two full assemblies in the Torrey Pines gym, Melanie Durkee shared the story of her son Taylor, who overdosed and died on March 12 this year at 27 years old. Collins had known Taylor, a San Dieguito High School Academy graduate, since he was 14 years old and they had become close friends.
After he got sober, Collins had invited Taylor to Torrey Pines to speak about his addiction on several occasions. Speaking as part of a Red Ribbon panel in 2013, Taylor said he had no idea when he took his first drink at 14 that in a couple of years he would overdose on heroin. He said he stole alcohol from grocery stores, pills from friends’ parents’ medicine cabinets and once he started doing heroin he could not stop — he was stuck doing the drug not to get high but so he wouldn’t get sick, he said.
“At 17 years old I was a full-on heroin addict, that was scary,” said Taylor back in 2013, admitting his life was full of anxiety but instead of telling anyone about it, he lied.
At the time of his death, Taylor had been sober for eight years and was at UC San Diego in the Global Health Initiative program.
“He was brilliant and hilarious and had real talent in music, art and academics,” Collins said. “Taylor’s death is an unbelievable loss in my life and in everyone’s who knew him.”
Melanie believes that a new friend had encouraged Taylor to relapse and that he was taking pills to deal with anxiety and depression and being stressed about his school.
Melanie’s emotion was raw, unable to control her tears as she recalled seeing her son’s body the morning after he overdosed. They were supposed to have met that morning to go to church.
The coroner believes that the pill Taylor took used contained Carfentanil. The substance is 100 times stronger than the opiod fentanyl and is so potent that only a few specks the size of granules of table salt can kill you.
“It is horrifying to see your child like that,” Melanie said through broken-up words, choked by tears. “He didn’t want to die, he was stressed out. I know he didn’t mean it. You can’t imagine what this has done to our family, we all feel guilt and shame…It just takes one second making a bad decision and everyone is impacted forever and ever.”
Mother Cathie Brown returned for Torrey Pines’ Red Ribbon Week for the third time in four years to support Durkee and to speak about her son Ian’s heroin overdose four years ago. Ian, a former Torrey Pines student, was 21 when he died— Brown first spoke at Torrey Pines six weeks after his death.
Brown said her son made some “really stupid choices”, beginning with thinking it was no big deal to smoke pot. He started experimenting with pills and then began smoking heroin — he was a struggling heroin addict at age 17. After years of rehab, he lost his fight in 2013.
The day before he died, Brown took him out to lunch and everything appeared fine. But the next day he decided to use heroin in his car one last time. He died there, alone. Nobody found him until the next morning.
Opiod use, which includes heroin and prescription painkillers oxycodone, codeine, fentanyl and others, has reached epidemic levels in the United States — in October, President Donald Trump declared the epidemic a public health crisis. Last year nearly 55,000 deaths were attributed to opiods and this year that number is expected to reach over 60,000. The number of people overdosing on the drugs every year is over a quarter million.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four in five new heroin users started out abusing prescription painkillers and chose to use heroin because prescription opiods were more expensive and harder to get.
“Drugs are not the answer. You are loved,” Brown said, discouraging teens from using pills for reasons like staying up to study or because they don’t want to feel. “Don’t look for hope in a pill because there are consequences that could change your whole life. It’s a choice when you start but very quickly it becomes you don’t have a choice.”
Sitting next to Brown and Durkee was Sue Harris, whose son Jameson was a Canyon Crest Academy graduate. After he died of a heroin overdose in 2016 at age 22, the family started a website and foundation to provide information and to stop addiction in youth and help save lives, the jamoproject.org
“We lost beautiful sons for absolutely no reason,” Brown said, noting that this has been one of the worst years in her circle of friends — she knows of four kids who have died this year of overdoses. “There is Xanax with fentanyl in it now. That’s what really scares me now.”
“Fentynal, and now Carfentynal, are game changers,” Collins said. “One pill, one time can kill you. It’s that simple and that serious.
”In addition to lots of red ribbons, informational posters and an art installation by students, there was also a crushed car on campus provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Mark Manion, a speaker from MADD, told his story to the students, painting a terrifying picture of being hit by a drunk driver while on a long-distance bike ride with his cousin. His cousin was killed and he was left paralyzed at 19.
Four friends, including the 24-year old driver, had been driving after a night of drinking. The force of the impact caused Manion’s skull to come off of his spine, he was internally decapitated. He was not expected to survive but he fought hard to live and said while he has had a wonderful life, it was not his choice to be in a wheelchair.
Years later he met one of the passengers from the crash who told him: “I would do anything to take back that choice.”
Students had strong reactions to the speakers.
“Seeing those mothers in pain made me realize how our actions affect other people. And we all have mothers, so that’s powerful,” said junior Paige Lendrum. “I am 17 right now and the speaker hit by the drunk driver was only 19. It made me think of everything in my life being taken away from me in two years and that’s really scary.”
Sophomore Andre Jabbour said the assembly was an important “reality check.”
“Drugs are not an option for me, and my family is really serious about never drinking and driving,” Andre said. “I already have my mind set not to do drugs, but I see other students who are still considering their choice so this was really good for them to see what can happen with the wrong choice.”
Teacher Catherine Mintz said she brings her students to this “critical” Red Ribbon assembly each year but believes this year was one of the most powerful.
“This year, you could hear a pin drop in the gym filled with 1,500 students. I did not see a single student on their phone as our guest speakers told their intimate stories of loss and suffering due to the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse,” Mintz said.
In 2009, one of Mintz’s senior students, Alex Capozza, was killed trying to do the right thing. After drinking at a party, he tried to get a safe ride home and was killed as the passenger of the drunk driver who gave him a ride. She said she pointed out the seat Alex sat in her classroom to her students after the assembly.
“Eight years later, I can still see Alex sitting there in that seat,” Mintz said. “If only one student in the sea of 1,500 makes a better choice after hearing the heartbreak, sorrow and anguish of the speakers who shared, that hour is well worth it.”