Lone Peak teen overdose sparks drug-prevention effort
Steve and Jolene Randall kept a close eye on their 17-year-old son, Jacob. They knew he was struggling. He had tried drinking beer and hard liquor with friends. When they saw Jacob bringing home expensive electronics he could not afford, they pushed him to come clean with the police about shoplifting. The teen spent a few days in juvenile detention, which the Randalls hoped would help teach him accountability.
But nothing prepared them for what happened in late February. As the Highland family readied for bed, Steve and Jolene heard Jacob gasping for breath. He had fallen asleep watching TV and stopped breathing. After he was rushed to the hospital with barely a pulse, they learned he had overdosed on heroin. He died two days later on Feb. 25.
The Randalls were shocked to discover that Jacob was using such a hard drug. And they were heartbroken over his death.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever dream that I would deal with this and especially from a heroin overdose. We had no idea, and we were very involved parents," said Jolene Randall. "What we want is for no one else to have to go through this. We want there to be awareness and understanding of what's going on right in our own little community."
Two other Highland-area teens who were using drugs have died since the first of the year but their deaths were classified as suicides by the state medical examiner, said Rhonda Bromley, spokeswoman for Alpine School District. Jacob Randall's overdose is considered accidental. All three teens had been students at Lone Peak High, although one was not attending the school this year.
On Wednesday, at 7 p.m., the high school plans to hold a community forum to discuss how to prevent drug and alcohol abuse and suicide among teens.
"We need to work together with parents, with community members, with ecclesiastical leaders," Bromley said. "It's not just a fight that the school is taking on, it's the community."
A school mourns • Lone Peak High Principal Chip Koop said until now there had been only three student deaths in the past seven years at Lone Peak, including one accidental overdose. These are the first two suicides he has encountered as principal.
"There is a somber feeling throughout the entire school," Koop said in an email.
The week after Jacob Randall's death, teachers and administrators at Lone Peak High reminded students how to anonymously report classmates who are using drugs or are suicidal. Six tips came in on a school hotline, which allows students to text or email their concerns. Students upset by the death of a peer also were encouraged to speak with a school counselor. Jacob Randall was a well-liked student who was a member of the wrestling team.
"He was just a good kid. If you ever needed someone, he would be the first person there, the first person to stand up for you if someone was on your case," said 16-year-old Rigel Hodson, a longtime friend of Jacob's who said he was shocked to learn the teen had been using drugs. "I didn't know there were kids in the Highland-Alpine area who could even get heroin. I just thought that was hardcore stuff you would see in gangs in Salt Lake or stuff like that."
Hodson said he hopes the school can do more to encourage kids to "say no" and to offer a safe way for teens to seek help without fear of getting in trouble.
"It's made me more aware of how [heroin] is around us, and we all need to be a little more cautious," he said. "If you really don't expect it, you don't know how to prepare for someone offering you something like that."
In a statewide survey last year, 21 percent of Utah high school students said they had been offered, sold or given an illegal drug on school property, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Fourteen percent said they had seriously considered attempting suicide. Seven percent reported they had attempted suicide.
Lt. Phil Murphy, commander of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force, said there's been a "surge" in the availability of heroin throughout Utah County in the past four or five years. From 2007 through 2011, 30 teens age 18 and under in Utah died from accidental or undetermined overdoses involving 45 identified drugs, including heroin and prescription pills, according to a Salt Lake Tribune review of cases certified by the state medical examiner. More than half lived in Salt Lake and Utah counties (eight deaths in each). During the same time period, 51 youths age 19 to 24 in Utah County and 118 in Salt Lake County died from drug overdoses that were not designated as suicides. Those numbers exclude deaths from alcohol poisoning.
In Utah, Murphy said, it's common for people who are addicted to prescription pain killers to switch to heroin because it's cheaper but also opiate-based. Supporting a pill habit might cost $500 to $1,000 a week, but heroin can be obtained for $50 to $100 a week. In Utah, heroin is generally brought into Salt Lake County by Mexican drug cartels. But users and small-time dealers buy it in Salt Lake County and bring it to Utah County, Murphy said.
"From the south end of the county to the point of the mountain, every community has it. No one high school is worse than another," Murphy said. "People need to be far more vigilant and far more aware. â¦ In this culture, with predominant LDS influences, you have people who have never smoked a cigarette or used alcohol, but you'll find people who have experimented with pain pills and heroin."
Not Superman • The Randalls aren't sure how many times their son had smoked heroin, but they believe he had not used it for long. They hope to encourage other teens to help their friends kick the habit or avoid it entirely. As Jacob lay in a coma on life support at American Fork Hospital, his friends streamed in to say goodbye. They didn't leave without a message from his parents.
"We said, 'Now, look at him. Now, look at us. Don't keep your friends' secrets,' " Jolene Randall said. "We had no clue and we know there are other people who don't have a clue. The ones who do know are the kids."
The Randalls say Jacob had a large circle of "good friends," but they believe their son also had a small group of pals who encouraged him to experiment with drugs. After Jacob's death, the family received a call from a friend who said he was sorry to hear about Jacob and guessed the teen had gotten a "bad batch."
"That's the element out there that somebody's life is a 'bad batch,' " Steve Randall said.
Before the funeral, the Randalls set up a memorial fund in Jacob's name at Wells Fargo Bank. They plan to use donations to boost drug prevention efforts at Lone Peak High. Steve Randall wants teens to understand the health risks of heroin and other drugs, and he wants them to get the message that they are not invincible.
"You're not Superman. You chase this high, you might die," he said. "I want those words to be said to every kid in a health class."
Already, the student deaths have prompted Lone Peak High to look at ways to improve drug and suicide prevention, Bromley said. The school wants to form a student group focused on substance-abuse prevention, hold a fall assembly to encourage kids to be drug-free, and provide more information to parents through pamphlets and online resources.
Steve Randall said he supports transparency about the problem, which is why he and his wife have been open about Jacob's death. In an interview, they shared both Jacob's best and worst behaviors. They will always remember their son's big heart. When he saw a child selling gum on the streets of Mexico or a panhandler outside of a Utah Jazz game, Jacob would give away his last dollar to help someone less fortunate.
"He was as good at being good as he was at being bad," said Steve Randall, who confessed that he has lost his passion for things he once enjoyed doing with Jacob. Fly fishing is on hold. Bowling has become a chore. He watched Jacob leave childhood behind and looked forward to spending time with his son as an adult.
"We finally get to be adults together, and he's gone. It's not fair," Randall said. "This is not a crusade about Jake. It is about protecting you from having to go through that pain."
P Lone Peak High will host a community meeting about teen drug use and suicide Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Lone Peak High auditorium, 10189 N. 4800 West, Highland. There also will be an overview of the new core standards in math and reading.