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Dealing with Drug Culture in East Tennessee Schools

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - Parents - would you know if your teenager is using drugs? It's a harsh reality that is hitting youth in East Tennessee as the opioid epidemic continues to hold a firm grip on the community.

The reality is there are teenagers in East Tennessee who are currently using drugs and some are addicted.

As painful as it is to look at the scars on his hands and arms, Drew Zorio, 19, is thankful to be alive.

"Opiates were my number one. Heroin and morphine were my two favorites," Zorio said.

He was just 14, a high school student in Blount County, when he got high for the first time.

"All sorts of pills were going around school. It's pretty easy to get your hands on anything. People have a script for it or their parents do," he said.

Those pain pills led to stronger drugs and in June 2017, a single hit of heron laced with fentanyl nearly took his life.

"I felt invincible, but when you're laying in the hospital bed, it's pretty scary," said Zorio.

Not everyone survives. According to the Knox County medical examiner, there were five overdose deaths between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2015. That number more than doubled to 12 in 2016.

Chief Lee Tramel with the Knox County Sheriff's Office says that number is expected to double again in 2017. He fears we are losing an entire generation.

"We have to use everything in our power to stop this because it's killing our children," said Tramel.

When it comes to our students, one in eight Knox County high school students surveyed in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2017 said they had misused a pain medication. Twenty-three percent reported they had been offered, sold or given an illicit substance on school property.

"This reinforces our need to be vigilant in looking for signs of kids who might be having issues," said Melissa Massie.

Massie oversees student services for Knox County Schools. She says the focus has been on education and awareness. A documentary about the dangers of opioids is being shown in schools. There's also been more training for counselors on recognizing signs and connecting students with resources.

"Sometimes it's resulted in kids sharing information with a counselor about another student and sometimes it's resulted in kids saying they need the help," said Massie.

The Metro Drug Coalition is also working directly with students.

"The substance use is starting younger and younger," said youth initiatives director Sarah Sandlin.

Meeting with students in Knox County high schools weekly, the goal is to have an open conversation with this age group, sharing facts on the dangers. They wants parents and teens to remember it only takes one time to become addicted.

"So we don't want someone to say, 'Well, I'm coming from a good family so this can't affect me.' It can affect anyone," said Deborah Crouse with Metro Drug Coalition.

Coming so close to dying, Drew Zorio says he'll never forget his darkest days.

"I remember looking down at some point. My hand would be swollen where I missed a vein. It's bad," Zorio said.

Now sober for several months, he finds hope at Harbours Gate, a non-profit helping him through recovery.

He wants other teens to know the dangers are real and drugs are never the answer.

"It's never too late to turn around and there are people out there who care," he said.

A proposal from State Rep. Eddie Smith would launch a pilot program to create public recovery high schools, which would specialize in helping young people facing drug problems.

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