Neuqua students make film to show drug use at school
May 24, 2012 8:24PM
Neuqua Valley Senior Kelly McCutcheon, front, and junior Jack Kapson, back, film the sign of Neuqua Valley High School for extra footage to use in their documentary on drug use at Neuqua Valley High School on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 2, 2012 9:50AM
Like so many of the kids and staff at Neuqua Valley High School, Kelly McCutcheon was pretty shook up when she heard about the heroin overdose of senior Megan Miller in February.
This was the fourth student the Indian Prairie school lost to drugs in one year. Yet no one seemed to be talking about the white elephant in the classroom — and many students had begun to wonder if the Naperville school even cared.
“I wasn’t a personal friend of Megan’s, but I knew her,” McCutcheon said. “And I knew of other kids who were using or trying to sell. It was Megan’s death that finally got everyone to admit we had a problem.”
So the 18-year-old, who will study cinematography next year at Columbia College in Chicago, decided to do something about that problem: She picked up a video camera and began interviewing her peers.
The result of this three-month project, “Neuqua on Drugs” will premiere next Wednesday at the 95th Street Library in Naperville. And although I’ve not seen the film yet — the final version is getting tweaked this week — I have a feeling it’s a show you won’t want to miss.
“This is not an anti-drug video,” McCutcheon insisted. “It’s a documentary that shows what’s going on ... it’s reality.”
She and junior Jack Kapson, her friend and an aspiring audio engineer, started the task by making a list of 30 students they were sure had been directly impacted by drugs — then approached them about being part of the documentary.
Understandably, there was hesitancy. But as word — and trust — spread and more jumped on board, the negative responses decreased. The reluctant students, McCutcheon said, finally figured, “if this guy can do it, so can I.’”
In the end, about 25 students took part. Some spoke openly about their drug use. Others did not want their names or faces used so parents or employers — or police — would identify them. Those participating were current and former students, soft and hard drug users, those still struggling and those in recovery.
Part of McCutcheon’s reason for the project was to put an end to the stories and rumors surrounding the four student deaths.
“This documentary holds nothing back,” she promised. “It’s about drug dealing and drug using.”
McCutcheon said she and Kapson did all the filming outside school, and tried to keep the project on the QT so adults wouldn’t interfere.
“At the time we started the project, kids really did feel like they were not being heard,” she said. “This video gave them a voice.”
To their credit, Neuqua officials decided this year something different had to be done to stem this problem in their school. In the fall the entire staff listened to presentations from drug specialists; and in April the school held a drug forum that was attended by more than 650 parents.
But perhaps their greatest success was the “Confront the Elephants” project, which gave all freshman in smaller classroom settings the chance to hear the blunt and unrehearsed stories of students and family impacted by drugs — including Megan Miller’s mother, Amy.
Neuqua social worker Pamela Witt described this project, which was run by senior students working directly with the freshman class, as “one of the more impactful things we have been a part of here at Neuqua.”
Social workers at NVHS “are really quite proud that we were able to come full circle this year,” she said. “ We knew the students were going to be the most difficult in terms of finding a way to deliver our message so they would listen and not immediately tune us out.
We spent the entire year soliciting input from our seniors on how best to reach them — in terms of delivery, the message and who should be involved.”
The small group settings and personal stories, she said, was the key to the success of Confront the Elephant.
It really is all about getting the dirty little secret out in the open in order to better fight it. Which is exactly what the producers of “Neuqua on Drugs” want to help accomplish.
McCutcheon said she funded the project herself with babysitting and birthday money, but hopes to recoup some of that by charging $5 for the viewing. At first, the idea was to share the film with family and friends and those who took part. But Facebook interest changed all that — and now the screening will take place twice on Wednesday; at 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Although they have nothing to do with the film, some Neuqua staff, including Pam Witt, also plan to attend.
“It’s not an anti drug film,” stressed McCutcheon. “It’s a film that shows the reality of drug use in our community.”
Which is why “Neuqua on Drugs” could be a valuable tool for many to view — and share. While this Naperville high school seems to be at the epicenter of suburban heroin use, this scourge affects all our schools and too many of our homes. I realized that more than ever on Mother’s Day when a woman from my church stepped to the lectern at the end of Mass and asked us all to pray for a 19-year-old Waubonsee Community College student who was in critical condition at Mercy Provena Medical Center in Aurora after overdosing on heroin at a party the night before.
I don’t know what happened to that young man. I do know this problem is not going away until we all pull our heads out of the sand and loudly acknowledge its destructive and often fatal hold over our young people. Which is why I applaud the efforts of two passionate teenagers trying like heck to make a difference.
“We lost four kids this year,” McCutcheon said. “I don’t want anyone to go through this again.”