From Opioid Epidemic’s Front Lines, Filling In the Brutal Back Story

After Mr. Whitelaw visited Saranac Lake, the high school principal heard from other educators in the area who had seen news reports about the presentation. In 2014, a state law was passed mandating that health education classes update their drug and alcohol curriculums to reflect the opioid epidemic.

“We received a lot of emails that gave us props for pushing the envelope,” Josh Dann, the high school principal, said last week. “It’s one of those assemblies you’ll never forget.”

Mr. Whitelaw wrote an opinion piece in April offering his services to other schools. He has not been asked to appear at another high school.

“It was like crickets in the night,” he said in an interview last week. “I don’t know if it’s because everyone is trying to wrap their kids in cotton and keep them safe from these ugly things. But the problem is if you don’t expose your kid to the ugly things and educate them on it, they will find out about it differently.”

Like many rural areas around the nation, Essex County has seen a spike in opioid overdoses. One of four coroners in the county, Mr. Whitelaw has personally investigated more than a dozen opioid deaths since he started the job in late 2012, including five so far this year.


Jessie Yasenchok

via Yasenchok family

“For us, in little old Podunk towns up here, that’s a lot,” he said. “Our numbers are nothing compared to more metropolitan areas in the state. But when you are such small, close-knit communities, and your local kids are dying from this stuff, and you get any number of them, it feels like too many.”

After Mr. Whitelaw wrote an earlier opinion piece for a local newspaper on the opioid epidemic, a physical education teacher from Saranac Lake High School asked him about speaking to students. He, in turn, contacted the mother and stepfather of…

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