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Cornelius News

Some parents say Hough High beset with drugs


Aug. 9. In the past year, two Hough High School students have died of fentanyl overdoses, and a handful more have enrolled in drug rehabilitation programs. Understandably, this has parents worried.

“Don’t you dare think it couldn’t possibly be your kid, or their friend, or your neighbor,” said one local parent in a Facebook post. “This problem is huge.”

But local police say the focus should not be on schools alone.

Olivia Moloney

“It’s not every day that a 14-year-old and a 17-year-old overdose,” said Cornelius Police Captain Jennifer Thompson, referring to Olivia Moloney, 14, who died last fall, and Laird Ramirez, 17, who died on July 1. “We have seen an increase in pill and fentanyl usage in the teenager community. [But] we have no indication that Hough is the hub for drugs in Cornelius.”

A major bust

Laird Ramirez

Whether or not schools are a hub for local drug activity, there are connections between Hough and a drug raid in June at a doublewide on Norman Island Drive where, after years of complaints from neighbors, detectives seized 988 yellow and blue fentanyl pills and 17 grams of methamphetamines. Ramirez’s mother said her son knew both individuals who were arrested in the raid. One, Matthew Christian Dominguez, 21, was a graduate of Hough.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, while North Carolina teens rank lowest among their peers nationwide for use of marijuana, cocaine, or even alcohol, they ranked among the highest—in the top ten states, in fact—for use of opioids, including fentanyl.

According to the CDC, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Russian roulette

“The problem is, with fentanyl, you don’t know,” said Thompson. “Each pill might have a different amount with it, and it may be cut with another drug. You don’t know what you’re getting. It’s like Russian roulette.”

According to the NCDHHS, fentanyl was involved, either on its own or in combination with other substances, in more than three quarters of overdose deaths in the state in 2021.

If fentanyl is so dangerous, why are young people, particularly teens, taking the risk?

Fred Fowle, an addiction and substance abuse counselor with the Mecklenburg County Public Health Department, said teens are highly influenced by messaging from media, their own homes and their neighborhoods. When drug use is normalized, even glorified, stigmas disappear. But even kids whose home and media environment discourage drug use are not immune.

“Substance abuse is about trying to fill a void or trying to escape reality,” Fowle said. For teens, that “reality” includes complex social networks, pressures to perform academically and the stress of being competitive in sports. With packed schedules and round-the-clock social scrutiny, teens may feel a need to boost their scarce downtime with alcohol or harder drugs.

Unfortunately, teens have an underdeveloped capacity to foresee long-term consequences.

“Some of the strongest messages is when something happens to one of their friends,” said Thompson. “I can tell people not to do something, but to kids, they’re not processing that they’re not invincible.”

Despite curriculum aimed at drug education and prevention, studies show that giving information alone does not change choices teens make. Even hearing “horror stories” from former addicts may arouse interest, but it does not mean teens will apply the information to their own experiences.

Another obstacle to addressing the substance abuse problem is also rooted in teen psychology.

“Some kids are afraid of being labeled a rat—a narc—but we encourage other kids [that] if they know someone using, to tell somebody,” Thompson said. “That may save someone’s life.”

Another school resource officer

With the goal of building community trust in law enforcement—of developing a relationship with someone students can “say something” to when dangers arise—Cornelius Commissioner Denis Bilodeau recently introduced a budget amendment that would provide funding for a school resource officer in the town’s elementary schools. Currently, SROs are only provided to middle and high schools in the area.

“An SRO being in among the students…lets them understand that they shouldn’t fear the uniform,” Bilodeau said. If drugs have infiltrated the schools, or if students are aware of sources, they may be more likely to report it.

Denis Bilodeau

“They become that trusted source and, hopefully, a mentor.” Bilodeau said. “Little, ‘safe’ Cornelius is not isolated from a number of things that—five, ten years ago—I would have said would never happen in Cornelius.”

While a particular issue may not have originated locally, if it is affecting people here, it must be addressed close to home.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Mental Health Manager Carrie Sargent said that CMS goes beyond typical substance abuse education by providing a team of Student Assistance Program counselors for students who have used drugs or alcohol. School staff, parents, or peers may refer students to the SAP for assessment and further treatment. The SAP aligns with North Carolina’s Opioid and Substance Use Action Plan, which also advises that people who have experienced substance abuse and recovery guide local initiatives.

“The most important things are for parents and caregivers to maintain open lines of communication, to express that substance misuse is not permissible, to monitor their child’s behaviors, social relationships, grades, and emotions, to address any mental health challenges through mental health treatment so that students do not attempt to self-medicate their symptoms, and to support their child regardless of sexual/gender development and level of performance within academics and/or athletics,” Sargent said.

Raising awareness

Hough High Principal David Farley said the school organizes regular campaigns to increase awareness of mental health and substance abuse issues as well as weekly lessons on social and emotional health. In addition, the school has adopted a nationally recognized program called Sources of Strength which addresses mental health and suicide prevention through peer social networks.


Farley said, “As I continue to actively plan for the 2023-2024 school year, I am collaborating with district staff, local law enforcement, and community partners to provide additional opportunities to educate our students and parents about the dangers of drugs.”

Thompson, whose own son is 21, believes families are the best line of defense.

“We’re asking parents to check up on their kids. Know their friends. Check their rooms. Check their cars. Their phones are a big thing,” she said. “I don’t mind being the ‘mean’ parent. We’re doing it because we love you and we don’t want anything to happen to you.”