Newtown Bee By Larissa Lytwyn
Many of Ian Katz’ friends have this picture of him hanging in their rooms. Photo courtesy of Courage to Speak Foundation
Virginia Katz, founder of the Courage to Speak Foundation, describes her mission as “inspiring kids to be drug-free.”
Her aim is a personal one. Eight years ago she lost her 20-year-old son, Ian, to a heroin overdose.
Ms Katz told her emotional story to over a hundred people at the Parent Connection’s latest forum, “The Courage to Speak,” at Newtown Middle School on February 25.
Ian, whom Ms Katz described as an outgoing, affectionate child, first began experimenting with alcohol and marijuana, according to friends, in eighth grade.
“One day, during his freshman year [at Norwalk High School] Ian was with his friend in his friend’s car when they were stopped by police,” Ms Katz said.
While there was evidence of marijuana use, Ian was not arrested.
“The policeman said that if he caught Ian again [with marijuana] then he would be arrested,” Ms Katz said.
But that first time, she said, Ian was off the hook.
Later, Ms Katz said, he told her that it was his friend who had been taking the drug.
“He told me that he didn’t even like marijuana!” she said. “Ian was in denial. I was, too. I simply believed him.”
As time went on, however, Ms Katz noticed subtle changes in Ian’s countenance.
Her epiphany came during a work-related drug awareness program.
“When the symptoms of drug use were described – the loss of interest, the distancing, the new friends he’d been hanging out with lately – I began to suspect that we had a problem,” she said.
She decided to send Ian to a doctor for a physical.
“Ian seemed perfectly healthy,” Ms Katz said, “but I realized that he hadn’t gotten a urine test [for drugs].”
She phoned the doctor with her concerns.
“I was told not to worry, that Ian seemed fine,” Ms Katz said. “But I wanted to be sure.” The doctor relented and she arranged to bring him a urine sample within the next week.
The next morning, she asked Ian for the sample. “He told me he would get me one the next day,” she said. At the time, she didn’t question him.
The next day, he gave her the urine sample as requested.
“As I took [the sample] I asked if it was his. He said yes. I looked at him and I could see in his eyes…that he was lying,” she said.
The sample was clean.
After Ian’s death, one of his friends admitted that Ian had used her baby brother’s urine; none of their friends had been clean.
Despite the “clean” sample, Ms Katz wasn’t satisfied. She spoke with Ian’s father, her ex-husband, about the issue. “It’s important that when talking about [drug issues] you forget about everything else,” Ms Katz urged her audience. Under his father’s decree, Ian went for another urine test. It tested positive for marijuana.
Ian attended counseling sporadically through his senior year of high school. Ensuing urine samples tested negatively. “I thought maybe things were going to be okay, that it was all behind us,” Ms Katz said.
As a graduation present from high school, Ian’s father bought him a brand-new Jeep.
One frigid February evening, Ms Katz awoke at around 2 am.
The room looked unnaturally bright. She dashed downstairs; Ian was dialing 911.
The Jeep was engulfed in flames. Some flames had even spread to some nearby pine trees. A police investigation revealed that the vehicle had been firebombed using beer bottles drenched in gasoline.
“The police told us that if it hadn’t been so cold, the pine trees would have burned down – on our house,” said Ms Katz. “I asked Ian who could have possibly wanted to hurt him. He told me that he had kissed a girl and that her jealous boyfriend was trying to get back at him.”
She believed him.
“Listen to the silence,” she told her audience. “The silence is the mistakes that were made, the denial. The silence is responsibility.”
During the fall of his freshman year at the University of Hartford, he admitted to his father that he had been snorting heroin.
“Kids think that snorting or smoking heroin or cocaine is less dangerous because it isn’t injected,” Ms Katz said. In, reality, the substances are just as potent.
Ian had told his father he suffered severe withdrawal symptoms from the heroin, which he described as the flu but “20 times worse.” He promised his parents that he would get clean, undergoing intensive drug counseling for the remainder of his freshman year and even getting honors in May.
Although his attitude approved that summer, he suffered a relapse in September of his sophomore year.
Ms Katz found her son dead at 6 am on September 10, 1996.
After thanking the audience for allowing her to speak, her husband, Larry Katz, discussed the symptoms of drug use. He also explained that many drugs, particularly marijuana, are markedly more potent then they were even a decade ago. Marijuana is ten to 20 times stronger than it was even a few years ago.
Youth Officer Andrew Stinson agreed.
“When I have parents pick up their children from the police station [for marijuana possession], they don’t think it’s that bad,” he said.
In addition to being more potent, today’s marijuana is often laced with drugs including PCP, cocaine and heroin. There has also been a rise in prescription medicine abuse.
“Never take someone else’s medicine,” warned Mr Katz. “Medicine is tailored to the patient’s particular needs.” Someone else taking it, he continued, can elicit a very dangerous reaction.
Parent Connection cofounder Dorrie Carolan discussed her own son’s ultimately fatal prescription drug abuse.
“I raised him the same way I did my other children,” she said, her voice breaking slightly. “[Drug problems] can happen to anyone.”
Newtown High School Assistant Principal Jules Triber discussed the school’s zero-tolerance drug policy, available at both the school’s website and student handbooks.
The policy works on a three-tier system: the first offense [involving drug use] translates to automatic three to five day suspension, including exclusion from extracurricular activities, including sports; the second, a long period of suspension; the third, an expulsion request to the Board of Education. Students who are caught in possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia can be arrested in accordance with the law.
One parent argued that suspension was akin to a “vacation.”
Mr Triber replied that it is up to the parent to determine how the suspension period is spent.
“Some parents make their children work at a soup kitchen for three days or work [around the house],” he said. “Other children can eat fruit loops and watch television all day.”
The parent responded, “You have our children in school for eight hours. [Parents] have them for five.”
Mr Triber chose not to reply.
Ms Katz intervened. “We all need to work as a community,” she said. “Let’s not blame one another.”
School Board Chair Elaine McClure plans to present a request for “internal assessment of substance abuse prevention” at its next meeting on Tuesday, March 2, in Reed Intermediate School, Room 122, at 7:30 pm.
“How the [drug assessment] will be handled will be determined by the board,” said Ms McClure. “But it will be discussed under the ‘any other matters’ portion of the meeting.”
For more information on the Courage to Speak foundation visit www.couragetospeak.org. Parent Connection cofounder Dorrie Carolan can be reached at 426-8591; website is www.geocities.com/newtownparentconnection.
The next Parent Connection forum, “Prescription Medication Or Drug of Abuse,” presented by Clay Yeager and Dr Sherry Siegel, neurologist and pain specialist, will take place on Wednesday, March 24, at Newtown Middle School from 7 to 9pm.
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