A spokesperson for Clovis Unified said the school district has implemented efforts to educate parents and students on the dangers of drug abuse. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz.
Buchanan High School graduate Cameron Hicks was able to shake a drug habit that led him from pills to heroin, but he doesn’t have enough fingers to count on his hands the number of friends, classmates and acquaintances he’s lost who couldn’t.
“It’s been so bad that, even to this day, if I get a phone call from somebody that I haven’t talked to in a long time, or somebody calls me late at night two or three times in a row, I answer the phone — cynically sometimes — and say, ‘who died?’” Hicks said.
One that hit particularly close to home was Joey Eischen, one of Hicks’ best friends. On April 2, 2008, he fell into unconsciousness as the result of what was called “the consequences of a long night” by his pastor (according to a 2008 report by ABC 30), and never woke up. He was 22 years old. Three months earlier, Eischen’s older brother Nick died from medical issues while serving in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve. Just two weeks later, another close friend of Hicks died on April 16. Like Eischen, he was only 22. A year later, Hicks got clean.
Before their deaths, Hicks said that he and his friends had all been introduced to OxyContin and other opioids in high school during the early 2000s when the drugs were beginning to explode onto the pharmaceutical market. This abundance of painkillers is alleged to have sparked an ongoing addiction epidemic in Clovis, one that’s spread to other high schools across Fresno County and the rest of the Central Valley.
The Clovis epidemic
According to Hicks — along with multiple other students and families — there’s been a severe outbreak of opioid dependency, abuse and addiction in Clovis Unified schools that’s quietly taken place over the last two decades. Flindt Andersen, founder and president of the Fresno-based recovery group Parents & Addicts in Need (PAIN), says that Clovis Unified School District was the nucleus of the Central Valley’s opioid problem. While the exact statistics may never be known, he estimates the number of those addicted to be in the thousands, while dozens — if not hundreds — have died.
“The problem has always been there, but we really saw it take effect around 2008 — that’s when it really started a life of its own,” Andersen said. “And because again, everybody that walks through our door, we ask them where they went to high school.”
Of the 2,000 clients and families to come through PAIN’s doors, approximately 80% of them were introduced to opioids in Clovis high schools.
The students affected ran the gamut of different backgrounds and social cliques, from troubled homes to honor students and all-star athletes. Motivational speaker and Clovis High School graduate Tony Hoffman was one of them. He says he’s known more people to die from overdoses than he does people who’ve gotten clean. One of them was his close his friend Nate.
The last time they met, Nate was the one trying to help Hoffman during his period of drug use, loaning him a sleeping bag after he became homeless. “Look at yourself,” were among the last words he said to him. A few years later, while Hoffman was in prison for armed robbery, he learned that Nate had been found dead in his room from an overdose, when his father came in to give him a good-morning kiss. He was 24.
Like his friend Hicks, Dean Hargrove also dreads the calls. His experience with opioids started when he was about 15, when his father would crush up a Vicodin whenever he had the flu. This eventually led to OxyContin, heroin, and multiple overdoses and arrests. He nearly lost his brother to opioids and in 2005, his father fatally overdosed on Oxy. In order to stay clean, he said he’s had to leave the Fresno-Clovis area completely.
“For some reason, that Clovis area kind of has this dark cloud over it,” Hargrove said over the phone.
Kelly Avants, chief communications officer for Clovis Unified, released a statement on the issue in regards to the crisis:
“The opioid abuse problems facing our nation today is alarming, and in Clovis Unified, we have long recognized that this threat to young people does not end at the doors of the school house.”
Avants added that efforts are being made by the district to educate parents and students and implement prevention strategies, including workshops, guest speakers, health fairs, classroom curriculum, staff training and one-on-one conversations.
But Andersen said the problem remains and in the last five years, Andersen says he’s been to 19 funerals for drug-related deaths. Clovis Unified alumni made up 13 of these, with the most recent being in May.
Prescriptions, parties and the pill scene
The origins of the drug epidemic, according to Andersen, began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as OxyContin started to hit the pharmacies with an aggressive marketing campaign by its manufacturers, Purdue Pharma. This included the idea of treating pain as the “fifth vital sign.” Further allegations argue that state medical boards were influenced by the industry to mandate doctors to write prescriptions to maintain their licenses. At the OxyContin launch party in the mid-‘90s, Purdue Pharma executive Richard Sackler promised that the market would be hit by a “blizzard of prescriptions.” Attorneys for the Sacklers have since claimed that his statement was taken out of context.
With the promise that “less than 1 percent” of patients would develop an addiction, doctors began to heavily prescribe OxyContin and other opioids, often for minor injuries and surgeries.
While many doctors simply wanted to help their patients, there were also those physicians that families and advocates allege were being reckless with their prescription pads. It was simply easier, Andersen argued, to write an order for painkillers than to spend long amounts of time on a single patient.
“All doctors are not evil people — they really don’t want to see their patients in pain,” Andersen said. “But they are so undereducated when it comes to addiction that it’s just laughable.”
Often times, students got into OxyContin and other opioids as party drugs. Typically, this meant gaining access through a friend or relative with a prescription. This was how Hicks and Hoffman were introduced.
According to Hoffman, he and his friends would often go to parties with kegs, only to go straight for the painkillers in the medicine cabinet, especially as they linked up with other groups from different schools who were also part of the “pill scene.” Soon, Hoffman said that he and his friends were looking for connections all over town and in Fresno.
“I was the beginning of the problem in this town,” Hoffman said. “There was a small group from Buchanan, a small group from Clovis West, and a very large group from Clovis High that began this whole problem in town. I watched it happen.”
A full-blown addiction to opioids usually wouldn’t develop until years after graduating high school, or even college. However, during that time, chemical dependency started to grow, where users would begin to suffer the severe, flulike symptoms of withdrawal without the substance — a condition sometimes referred to as being “dope sick.”
Once the person using a drug reaches this dependency, the race is on to acquire more opioids before the dope sickness sets back in. The ways that Hoffman, Hicks, Hargrove and others set about getting OxyContin and other painkillers varied greatly. This ranged not only from going from dealer to dealer in Fresno and Clovis, but shopping for prescriptions from different doctors. Hargrove said there was at least one doctor who would prescribe upwards of 120 80mg pills of OxyContin in tandem with other medications.
“And they had to know about the epidemic because it would be one kid referring another kid, another kid referring another kid,” Hargrove said. “And their doors were just — you couldn’t book an appointment.”
For Hicks, claiming the right symptoms at another physician’s office resulted in a monthly prescription of 90 OxyContin, 240 10mg pills of Percoset, 10 to 12 100-microgram fentanyl pouches, somas, and Xanax if requested. All of this was paid for with a co-pay of $10.
His mother caught on to what was happening, and after her son went to rehab, she confronted the doctor, only for him to continue to prescribe Hicks shortly after getting out.
Eventually, abuse gave way to addiction, but students graduated and grew up, they were no longer on their parents’ insurance. Things only got worse in the 2010s, after OxyContin was pulled off the shelves and replaced with non-crushable gel pills. This led in part — along with dwindling finances — to an explosion of heroin use among Clovis Unified alumni and students, and the trend repeated across the country.
This is the first in a series of stories about how the opioid epidemic took shape in Clovis Unified School District.