By MICHAEL MARTZ • Richmond Times-Dispatch
Bonnie Morgan lived in world capitals, was an A student at her high school in Alexandria, and used her first illicit drug at age 13.
Now, she’s a recovering heroin addict who graduated Saturday from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in communications arts, plans to illustrate a book, and a path to graduate school in social work.
Morgan, 22, is a public face of a quiet but growing campus drug problem that Virginia is struggling to define, much less solve.
She knows other VCU students who have died of heroin overdoses that remain undocumented by the school because colleges and universities aren’t required to report fatal overdoses, and grieving families often don’t want to disclose them.
“It’s an epidemic no one wants to look at,” she said.
Last week, state Secretary of Education Anne Holton acknowledged “a missed opportunity” for K-12 and higher education officials in Virginia, who did not participate directly on the Governor’s Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse.
The task force was formed last year to address a surge in fatal overdoses across Virginia. The 32-member panel had no one from educational institutions, apart from one community college police chief.
“This is an opportunity for us to figure out what we can be doing,” Holton told the Virginia Commission on Youth on Tuesday.
Morgan also represents one of the solutions for students who are overcoming substance-use disorders ranging from alcoholism to prescription drug and heroin addiction. She is president of Rams in Recovery, one of a handful of collegiate recovery programs taking root in Virginia colleges and universities to help students remain clean, sober, and in school.
“I have a future now,” she said.
The Commission on Youth last week called for strategies for colleges and universities to identify, treat and support students with substance-use disorders — including the possibility of mandating that four- and two-year institutions have recovery programs.
The commission resolution directs the state to develop a plan for addressing drug and alcohol use at colleges, universities and K-12 schools, and educating students on the risks of using a wide range of drugs, including synthetic designer drugs such as MDMA, also called Ecstasy or Molly.
“What I want to see happen is kids learning about various drugs so they can make an educated decision,” said Deirdre S. Goldsmith, a citizen commissioner whose 19-year-old daughter, Shelley, a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia, died of MDMA intoxication at a dance club in Washington two years ago.
“These kids would not take the risks they’re taking if they had this information,” Goldsmith said in an interview.
But legislators also will have to find money in the state budget to help pay for policy analysis that Holton said the State Council for Higher Education of Virginia is not prepared to conduct.
“I don’t know that SCHEV has got the capacity and resources to do this,” Holton said. “I don’t think they have any internal expertise on the topic.”
More than 20 years ago, SCHEV employed a coordinator for substance abuse, but the job eventually disappeared with the federal funds supporting the position. Similarly, support for drug-intervention programs disappeared in K-12 education.
“The end of federal funding under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act in 2009 had an impact on prevention and intervention programs in school divisions — in Virginia and across the country,” said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.
Collegiate recovery programs are effective, but they take time and resources to develop, said Lisa Laitman, director of the Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program at Rutgers University, which established its recovery program in 1983 and first opened housing for recovering students in 1988. “When the state does commit resources, it sort of helps the way.”
The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — which produces $150 million a year in net profit from the state liquor monopoly — has begun to supplant federal money with additional state funds to support the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council and a conference that tours college campuses. ABC also funnels $65.4 million a year in liquor profits to substance-abuse treatment programs at the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which is using federal block grant funding for a study of heroin and prescription drug use among youth 12 to 24 years old in 12 targeted localities, including Richmond and Chesterfield County.
The governor’s task force’s implementation plan directs the behavioral health agency to work with SCHEV on the possible development of dedicated housing for recovering students — something no collegiate recovery program in Virginia currently operates.
The plan also directs the department to work with local community services boards on providing addiction treatment services to adolescents and young adults, and encourage the local and regional agencies to develop relationships with community colleges for treatment and recovery services.
All of the proposals require “collaboration and funding,” the plan states.
“We’ll see what gets into the budget and what doesn’t,” said Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel, who co-chaired the governor’s task force and acknowledged its lack of attention to drug use in schools, colleges and universities.
“Knowing what I know now, I think we probably need to do more with the younger ages,” Hazel said.
David S. Anderson, who is retiring this month as director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Health at George Mason University in Fairfax County, said, “The commitment is not there at the state level and the campus level.”
Neither is data on how many students have died, or how prevalent heroin and prescription opioid use is on campuses, said Anderson, a coordinator for the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council.
“Nobody really knows,” he said.
Five years ago, Henry Watkins died from a combination of Xanax and alcohol, just weeks after he transferred to VCU from James Madison University and one week after his grandmother’s sudden death.
Watkins, 21, had dropped out of JMU after repeated treatment, primarily for prescription drug addiction that began with a sports injury in high school.
He would return to college from treatment “sober and clean, with no support, relapse, and go back,” said his stepmother, Rosalind W. Watkins, chair of the board of directors for the JHW Foundation Inc. The foundation was created after Henry’s death to help fund programs, such as Rams in Recovery, to support college students recovering from drug and alcohol dependence.
“We realized there is a huge gap, not only in understanding, but resources,” Watkins said.
Last week, the foundation gave an additional $15,000 to two endowments it created with $20,000 in grants two years ago to support the VCU recovery program, now in its third academic year. About 30 students have participated in Rams in Recovery and five have graduated from VCU.
“I’m very proud of the outcome,” Watkins said. “The support is definitely working.”
Experts say peer support is critical for students who are trying to stay clean and sober in an environment that is paved with temptations, peer pressure and stigma.
“They shouldn’t have to choose between their recovery and their education,” said Thomas N. Bannard, a co-founder of the program who was hired in October as its first coordinator, a position funded jointly by the VCU Wellness Resource Center and the university’s newly created College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute.
Bannard, 31, was one of those students in 2008, when he returned to the University of Virginia after undergoing rehab for alcohol and drug problems.
He found support from Hoos in Recovery, a program founded in 2007-08 by one of his professors, Kevin Doyle, who is working to establish a similar program at Longwood University, where he now teaches.
“I’m really impressed with what VCU is doing,” said Doyle, an assistant professor and coordinator of the university’s counselor education program.
The new institute brings together research, programs and policy on behavioral and emotional health from across the university. The research includes data that will be gleaned from Spit for Science, in which 70 percent of freshmen students in the four years prior to this one agreed to participate. The students completed surveys and almost all of the provided saliva samples for genetic analysis, which is just beginning.
“We’re working on building a bridge between what we’re learning from basic research and how we build on prevention and intervention with our students,” said Danielle M. Dick, a professor of psychology, African-American studies, and human and molecular genetics who started the institute.
A national study of collegiate recovery programs last year called a supportive campus environment “essential to youths sustaining a drug-free lifestyle” but lamented the lack of a coordinated and systematic effort to develop the programs at colleges and universities across the country.
“Though experts have long noted the lack of campus-based services for recovering students and called for research on this population, few have heeded the call,” said the study by the National Development and Research Institutes Inc.
The lead author of the study, Alexandre B. Laudet, said in an email message that she believes drug overdose deaths on college and university campuses are “grossly underreported.”
“It’s a well-kept secret, and secrets kill,” said Laudet, director emeritus of the institute’s Center for the Study of Addictions and Recovery.
Bonnie Morgan began using prescription drugs for “non-prescribed reasons” in the eighth or ninth grade. She used Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication that can be lethal mixed with alcohol, and Adderall, a commonly prescribed stimulant for young people with attention-deficit disorder.
Her father was a military attaché for the Navy, stationed in Athens and Moscow, before the family settled in Alexandria. Drug use was common in her high school, where she became addicted to MDMA, or Ecstasy, the same synthetic drug that killed Shelley Goldsmith.
Most of the people using drugs in her high school were from affluent families and were highly educated. “What do you do with all that? You just play,” she said.
Morgan began using heroin and other opioids in college but was able to maintain a high grade-point-average despite her deepening addiction. “I never failed a class,” she said.
But she bottomed out in her second year, survived an OxyContin overdose, and found help by demanding it from VCU’s Student Health Center, where she began to confront the insecurities underlying her addiction to drugs.
She also found support from faculty and the staff at the Well, as the VCU Wellness Resource Center is known.
“VCU doesn’t value conformity,” said Kristen K. Donovan, the center’s assistant director for substance education and recovery support. “I think they can find a supportive environment here if they look for it.”
Linda C. Hancock, the center’s director, was blunt with legislators last week about the challenge facing Virginia colleges and universities from heroin and prescription opioid use.
“We are in the middle of an opioid epidemic,” she said.
At the same time, Hancock said other drugs also pose serious threats to student health and safety. “What’s the most devastating drug? The one you like the most,” she said in an interview.
The best information on the scale of drug problems on campus is likely to come from the students themselves, as well as the families of those who have died.
“In terms of painting an accurate picture of what addiction is like or the consequences can be, there really aren’t better ambassadors than the families that are left to carry on without a loved one,” said Michael Kelly, spokesman for Attorney General Mark R. Herring, whose office produced and recently released a documentary on heroin and prescription drug use.
However, addicts aren’t the only students at risk, cautioned Dierdre Goldsmith, whose daughter, Shelley, was not a habitual drug user and did not consume any substance other than MDMA on the day she died in August 2013.
Goldsmith is concerned about the mindset of high-achieving, non-addicted students who take ill-informed risks about drugs such as Molly.
“I do know there’s a culture that needs to be addressed around the issue,” she said.
As Morgan prepared last week for graduation, she is mindful of the friends, some of them active students, who died of their addictions.
“It means I survived,” she said, “and a lot of people did not.”