In the battle against drug abuse, students are increasingly likely to have a recovering addict like Will Connell dissuade them from using rather than a cop -- like his dad, Hastings police officer Tim Connell.
"I can't think of a better deterrent," said Will Connell, who spent last year with the Know the Truth program visiting Twin Cities schools to talk about his heroin addiction.
Connell became an addict through what experts say is a popular new gateway: abusing opiate painkillers initially prescribed to a family member or friend. The legal prescription of opiates, drugs including oxycodone (called "oxy" on the street), has grown by 72 percent in Minnesota since 2005.
Opiates are dangerous when they fall into hands of young people who see them as less harmful than traditional street drugs.
"I wish I would have known how many people this affects," Connell said. "I never thought I'd be the model of a drug addict."
Connell's work with the Know the Truth program is an example of the changing face of drug prevention efforts across Minnesota and the nation that are working to combat the misperception that prescription drugs are safer than others.
Long a staple in the fight, Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers like Connell's father have all but disappeared from metro schools because of funding cuts and questions about DARE's effectiveness.
In their place are more continuous and holistic approaches to educating students about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. They begin as early as kindergarten and are part of the curriculum through high school.
Education is paired with outreach to parents and the community, providing students with peer groups in which they can address the real and perceived prevalence of drug use in school.
Educators also work to include in their messages the latest trends, such as the popularity of prescription pills or synthetic drugs.
"We do a lot on the awareness side.
The rising use of legal prescription opiates, primarily painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, known also by their brand names OxyContin and Vicodin, have led to increased addiction to these drugs and an increase in heroin use.
Deaths from these drugs and heroin have spiked, more people are getting substance abuse treatment and police are reporting increases in related crimes.
Trying to explain why these things are dangerous," said Barry Scanlan, prevention programs coordinator for Anoka-Hennepin schools, the state's largest district.
Some schools still use DARE officers when funding is available; others are making the transition to new programs.
Regardless of the approach, school leaders work constantly to correct students' misimpressions about drugs, Scanlan said.
"We are up against a culture where drugs are seen everywhere," he said. "Students start to feel, 'If Mom and Dad can do it, why can't I?' "
Real-life stories from recovering addicts such as Connell help school leaders give students a picture of what addiction can look like.
"(Students) don't see me as some authority figure telling them what to do," Connell said. "We have the ability to relate to them much quicker and easier."
Connell's dad said he supports his son's work to keep others from drug addiction, but he's critical of the move by so many communities to abandon the DARE program.
"You can replace the educational element, but you can't replace the relationship element," Tim Connell said. "That was the critical part of being a DARE officer, building relationships with kids who were impressionable and needed to recognize authority so they could respect authority.
"They say it wasn't supported by the numbers. But sometimes they are just wrong."
Will Connell's story is one police and addiction experts warn about. He started drinking at 13 after his parents divorced. "I didn't care what happened to me," he said.
His use soon extended to drugs like marijuana and Ecstasy. Then he tried an old prescription for painkillers his mother had in the house. Weeks later, he was hooked.
Prescription opiates and other pills are now second only to marijuana among the drugs students try, according to a 2010 national survey of young people ages 12 to 25 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Opiate painkillers like oxycodone now are used almost as frequently as marijuana, the study found, with 2 million young people trying the drug in 2010.
"I wanted them to last forever," Connell, who is now 22, said of his first experience with opiates.
The drugs felt "cleaner," were easier to dose, and he could function in society. "I could eat and sleep and go to class," he said. "It was my drug of choice."
The pills eventually ran out, and he had trouble getting more, so he turned to heroin. For drug money, he began selling his belongings, including a snowmobile.
"I lost all desire to do anything but get high," he said.
These addictions can quickly turn deadly.
In the past three years, four of Connell's former Hastings High School classmates have died from heroin overdoses. Police believe those young addicts started out using prescription drugs and then injected heroin, a drug that Twin Cities police say currently has some of the highest levels of purity in the nation.
Addicts also often turn to crime to feed their addictions.
Two Little Falls High School students, Haile Kifer, 18, and Nicholas Brady, 17, were shot and killed Nov. 22 during an apparent break-in. While police have not directly addressed the motive for the burglary, they found prescription drugs stolen from another home in the car Kifer and Brady were using the day they broke into Byron Smith's home.
Little Falls police said they often came into contact with the cousins but wouldn't disclose why other than to say it included suspicious activity. Friends and family members acknowledged Kifer had recently undergone treatment for substance abuse.
Pati McConeghey, of the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge rehabilitation program where Connell got involved with Know the Truth, said the perception that prescription opiates are "cleaner and safer" is one police and addiction experts are working hard to change.
"The perception is everyone is doing it but them," McConeghey said of student drug use. "No one comes to school on Monday and says, 'I got so sober this weekend.' "
Reaching kids at a younger age is key to changing that perspective, McConeghey said. A survey of 25,000 Minnesota students last school year found nearly 23 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders used drugs and 44 percent drank alcohol. Of those students, 37 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys abused prescription drugs.
Know the Truth has expanded its efforts in middle schools across the metro, but McConeghey said the demand for its programs far outweighs the funding available to provide it. Last year, 25,000 Minnesota students attended Know the Truth programming and 1,100 parents attended seminars about talking to their children about drug abuse.
Parents have always been the first line of defense against drug abuse, and McConeghey said their role is more important than ever in the fight against prescription drug abuse.
In Minnesota, 70 percent of the pills young people abuse come from family or friends and 68 percent of students say their parents' disapproval is a deterrent to drug abuse.
"It needs to be an ongoing conversation," McConeghey said. "It's not about 'Just Say No.' (Students) need to have refusal skills, and they need to have a partner in this."
Many communities are broadening prevention efforts beyond the school building or police department.
Little Falls schools superintendent Stephen Jones and Morrison County Administrator Deb Gruber said they have had a community-wide partnership to reduce drug and alcohol use since 2006.
As speculation about how addiction might have played a role in Kifer and Brady's deaths grew, Jones and Gruber highlighted community efforts to address prescription and other drug abuse. They include heightened monitoring of prescribing practices, a tip line, a drug take-back initiative and educational forums.
The community also launched a new campaign to "correct dangerous misperceptions students have about the normalcy of substance use," Jones and Gruber said in a news release.
"I think it really has to be a community-wide approach if it is going to have any impact," Jones said. "Obviously, we are aware it is a concern, and this is a proactive approach to address it."