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Fighting drug addiction with drug education

They are an odd team: A cop with a dog, a sassy-looking young lady in a trendy jacket and a teenage guy who could be the kid next door.

The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at a Johnstown school whisper jokes, nudge each other, sneak peeks at the dog and even venture away from their seats.

The program starts, and they are quiet.

Meet Clinton, who started abusing drugs in sixth grade, when he was 12 years old.

Now 19, he lives in jail.

His drug addiction started with marijuana and alcohol.

Once a high school wrestler who was getting good grades, his life spiraled downward into heroin addiction.

Engrossed, the students listen to the story of a teenager who could be their older brother or an older kid in the neighborhood.

This is the Cambria County court system's newest drug education program, started in response to the epidemic of heroin addiction among the region's young people.

It is one of several ways in which officials in Cambria, Somerset and Bedford counties are fighting back.

While Cambria takes to the schools, Bedford officials are taking to the streets with a new drug task force to bust nests of dealers selling heroin near the turnpike and in small communities.

"Bedford County is such a nice area, so drugs and the crime they bring stand out even more and make us determined to drive them out," said District Attorney William Higgins.

In Somerset County, commissioners last year launched a program called Communities that Care, a survey of teens in cooperation with superintendents of the county's 11 public school districts. The results will be used this year to form a coalition to combat the drug problem.

Cambria's drug education program brings recovering teen addicts like Clinton into classrooms, accompanied by a former probation officer who appears young enough to relate to preteens.

Accompanying her is a member of the county's drug task force and his drug-sniffing dog, "Bowie."

School administrators and drug counselors say the program is an effective way to get through to students who otherwise might not be able to relate to drug addicts.

"I deliberately picked this young probation officer to run this program because she looks like a high school student," said Judge Gerard Long.

On the level Hearing directly from addicts like Clinton gives adult warnings credibility, said Jim Bracken, director of Cambria County's Drug and Alcohol Program.

"We also have prevention providers who go out to do educational sessions in the schools, and then teachers can follow up on the themes," he said.

"Even so, the drug prevention education of parents and children needs to be more extensive, and I'm glad the courts are taking this step."

On this day, as Clinton first begins to talk, students look around the room, then at each other and finally at Clinton.

Their gazes remain fixed on him as he tells his story, which, like other addicts in the region interviewed by The Tribune-Democrat, centers on the teenage need for acceptance and "fitting in."

"It started for me when I decided to hang around with older kids," he said.

They talked him into using marijuana, and his experimentation turned into a controlling habit.

"I wasn't going to school. It was taking away all of my energy, and I stopped listening to those who were trying to help me," he said.

By eighth grade, Clinton was taken away from his family because he was skipping school. He was on probation for truancy, and he wasn't following the rules.

"It was a hard thing for me. The only thing I'd known was my family," he said.

After nine months he returned home but quickly went back to hanging out with the same older kids.

"This time I started using painkillers, especially Oxycontin, and I got addicted to it," he said.

"I was doing a lot of illegal things to get the money to buy it," he said. "One day I didn't have any Oxycontin, and someone said, 'Why don't you try heroin?' I did, and I got addicted right away," he said.

"This time it was really serious."

Clinton delivers his first message to the students: "I made one decision, and I got addicted."

As a heroin addict, his life snowballed downhill. His self-respect withered and died.

"I was having cold sweats at night and vomiting. I was doing everything I could to get heroin."

At 17 he was arrested again and sent to Cambria County Juvenile Detention Center.

But the courts certified him as an adult, so he went to prison.

"I was just 17 years old, so you can imagine what that was like," he said.

Once out of jail, Clinton went back to using heroin.

"This time it was really bad. I did about 30 bags a day. I was doing anything to get it -- robbing Sheetz, any place I could. It takes control of your life," he said.

Again, the message to his young audience: "All of this was the consequence of one bad decision."

In December 2002, Clinton was arrested again.

"The judge sentenced me to state prison, but he gave me a chance. Now I'm in a treatment facility, and I don't have my family. I thought that it couldn't happen to me," he said.

"I'm telling you what I went through. You don't want to go down that road."

Life and death He hammered his points to the students: "I know a young lady who was addicted to heroin, and she has a 4-year-old daughter. At age 17, she got sick, and thought it was because she didn't have any heroin. It turns out that she had an infection in her heart valve. Now she'll wear a pacemaker the rest of her life," he said.

"I have had friends overdose on heroin. You'll do what it takes to get high, and you'll need more each time," he said.

"I lived in the Johnstown area, I grew up in the Johnstown area. It's here, and you'll be faced with that decision."

Next was the cop, a member of the county drug task force, Bowie's handler, and, by now, Clinton's friend.

"I'm just some old guy who would talk to you, but it wouldn't mean anything," the officer said.

"But Clinton here is just 19 years old, and he's lived the better part of his life high on drugs. The key word is choices. Clinton could be me, and I could be Clinton," he said.

He introduces Bowie, Cambria County's first drug dog, and explains how the canine has discovered illegal drugs worth at least $100,000 on the street.

Working the crowd by passing out pictures of the dog, the officer urges the kids to ask Clinton any question they want.

The silence breaks as clusters of hands shoot up in the air.

QUESTION: "What does heroin taste like?"

ANSWER: "Really bad, that is the powder form."

Q: "What happened to your friends, the guys you did drugs with?"

A: "Some are in jail, some are dead and some are still out there doing anything they have to do to support their addiction."

Q: "What did you take?"

A: "Anything that got me high. Once you're addicted to heroin, you'll take anything to get you high."

At least a dozen more hands shoot up.

What drug is the worst?

"Some drugs are more powerful than others, but they're all addictive."

What are your plans?

"I got my GED while I was in jail, and now I plan to go to college someday."

How did it start?

"It started with the small stuff, and that's what opened the door. It actually started with cigarettes, which I stole from my mom. I got used to hiding things. That led to the rest," Clinton said.

"You can get addicted to heroin the first time, or the first few times, you use it. It takes control of our life. It can kill you," he said.

Programs like these end with a strong message from Clinton to the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders: "If you start using, you're going to jail, or you're going to die. You will either overdose, kill yourself or someone will kill you.

"I got kicked out of school for using drugs and got taken away from my family for using drugs. My teachers knew I wasn't the same person they knew. I haven't been home since last December. I wasn't home for Christmas last year, and I won't be this year.

"And the drug dealers, you want to know about them? They don't come after you, because they know you will come back for more. They set up in little communities, just like here."

Some students are worried about Clinton's future, and for the first time he smiles at them.

"I have six months left in rehabilitation, but it's still up to the judge. Now that my mind's clear, I can set boundaries in my mind. They teach me a lot of good things at the center.

"My message to you is that no one can make you do it. You will say yes or you will say no. The choice is yours."

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