Just days before his high school graduation party, Jimmy Mayer lay on his bedroom floor, frothing at the mouth, his chest heaving and his skin an ashen gray. A needle rested by his arm when his startled grandmother found him unconscious.
While he was in the ambulance, Jimmy’s cellphone rang, his mother said. It was another kid who’d just graduated from St. Francis High School, someone Jimmy’s mother and other parents say survived two heroin overdoses himself, one on school grounds.
“There were at least 20 kids at school who were using heroin last year,” Jimmy said this week. “Now that I’ve been clean for four months, it makes me wonder, what’s going on in St. Francis? Why can’t somebody do something?”
The same question is rippling across St. Francis, a northern Anoka County community of 7,000 that finds itself in the grips of what some parents believe is a heroin epidemic. Three young people have died of overdoses since May — two by heroin, authorities believe, and a 15-year-old from mixed prescription opiates. Another three young men have been hospitalized in recent months because of heroin overdoses.
Five years ago, heroin killed two people in Anoka County; this year, the toll already is 21, the county medical examiner’s office says. Throughout Minnesota, heroin deaths rose 40 percent between 2010 and 2012.
In St. Francis, three mothers of young heroin users told the Star Tribune that local school officials were warned two or three years ago that the school district had a growing heroin problem. Rather than wait for the district’s response to the recent overdoses, a group of concerned parents has said enough is enough. They’ve created a nonprofit to combat the spread of heroin, started a Facebook page and organized two forums, one on Monday in East Bethel and the other on Nov. 21 at St. Francis High School.
Jackie Mayer, Jimmy’s mother, said she will do whatever she can to help the parents’ group, but also recalls a conversation she had with a St. Francis High School official after her son’s overdose on July 7. She spoke of a previous incident, she said.
“You had two kids who did heroin and overdosed right in the school parking lot,” she said she told the official. “How can the school not do anything about this?”
Police and Paul Neubauer, the former high school principal, confirmed the incident, which occurred a year ago. Two students skipped school, “became involved with chemicals,” and drove to the school parking lot at the end of the day, said Neubauer, now the district’s interim director of curriculum and instruction. They passed out before they could get out of their car, he said. An external security officer called an ambulance, ultimately saving the boys’ lives.
The district has tried to be vigilant in its battle against drugs, said Superintendent Ed Saxton. At one point, an outreach committee including members of the faith community had 30 members. But the committee dwindled, Saxton said. At the same time, parents’ concerns were growing.
Neubauer initiated a drug-dog program, which ended when the dog’s companion officer was transferred. An anonymous tip line was initiated. Free drug-testing kits were made available to parents, but kids quickly figured out how to beat those tests, Saxton said.
Scrutiny has increased. Last year, St. Francis High School saw 48 chemical violations — twice as many as the year before, Neubauer said.
Last month came the tragedy that prompted the formation of the St. Francis Drug Awareness group. After the body of the 15-year-old was found in his St. Francis home, “it struck a chord in me, in everyone who heard about it,” said Michelle Anderson, a day-care provider in St. Francis and chairwoman of the drug awareness group.
The Anoka County medical examiner later reported that the boy died accidentally of “mixed drug toxicity.”
“We can’t just keep letting these kids die,” Anderson said.
In the Twin Cities, a new population of heroin users has emerged, said Carol Falkowski, CEO and founder of Drug Abuse Dialogues. Almost half of those entering treatment for heroin are men between 18 and 25, Falkowski said.
Jake Schmaus, a 2010 St. Francis graduate, was one of them. On May 22, he was found dead in his bedroom by his father. Like Jimmy Mayer, a needle was at Jake’s side.
Friends remember him as extremely popular, with a glowing smile, a good student who played on the St. Francis basketball team. .
After high school, Jake went on to the University of Minnesota Duluth, but he left after his freshman year. Then, a year ago in August, Sheri Schmaus awakened to the sounds of her son struggling to breathe. After a few days in intensive care, Jake admitted he was going through heroin withdrawal. His family was stunned.
Trying to explain what it was like to be an addict, “Jake said he was a prisoner in his own body,” his mother said.
“These parents and these kids have to realize that there is no stereotype for heroin users, that it can happen in any family,” she said.
Jake’s story is similar to that of Jimmy Mayer — a star outfielder on the high school baseball team and a center who hopes to play hockey for a Division III college. This week, he attended a memorial for Robert McCullough, 20, the latest overdose victim with St. Francis ties. He was found dead on a friend’s couch on Oct. 27.
Once a promising hockey player, Robert’s grades plummeted his freshman year at St. Francis High School, when he began experimenting with Ecstasy and other drugs, his mother, Lisa McCullough, said recently. Robert was moved to Crossroads, an alternative school. When he began regressing socially, his mother said she pulled him from Crossroads and the St. Francis School District.
Last Dec. 18, Robert was rushed to Unity Hospital in Fridley, having overdosed on heroin, his mother recalled. She said she later had Robert committed and he was placed in Transformation House, an Anoka treatment facility. According to his mother, Robert earned a weekend pass last month, caught up with old buddies and overdosed.
“These aren’t necessarily bad kids,” Richard McCullough, Robert’s father, said of the young addicts. “They’re lost. It’s a horrible problem in St. Francis. I’m afraid Robert won’t be the last.”