When parents and educators preach to teens about the perils of drug abuse it often fosters curiosity.
Armed with this information, seven Vancouver Police Department officers developed a program 14 years ago that exposes teens to the raw side of drug addiction by immersing them on the streets of the Downtown Eastside for an afternoon.
The intent is that students will then report their experience to classmates and peers.
VPD Const. David Steverding is a member of the volunteer-run Odd Squad Productions Society that runs the program. His niece attends Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in North Vancouver. This fall, Steverding approached the school’s administration to gauge their interest in participating in a pilot project for North Shore schools. They bit.
STA law teacher Greg McCaffery helped handpick a dozen Grade 11 and 12 students for the program.
On a Saturday morning in early November the students ditched a hallmark of their Catholic school education. There had been a collective ‘no’ when asked if they should wear their uniforms on the Downtown Eastside.
The students were afraid area residents might think they wanted to preach to them.
The students were accompanied by their teacher Mr. McCaffery, a school counsellor and STA’s police liaison, Const. Christy Mohr of the North Vancouver RCMP during their tour of the hardscrabble neighbourhood with the Odd Squad. They split into groups and zeroed in on Main and Hastings streets.
“Standing around the Carnegie Centre there were so many drug deals going on even though there was a police officer with us,” said STA senior Miranda Defer.
The stench of human feces and urine travelled with the students down alleys and side streets, they recalled. Residents of the area openly smoked crack.
Then came the tour of the single room occupancy Balmoral and Regent hotels.
“It had a different smell on every floor,” said Grade 11 student Natasha Marzbani. “There were some people that didn’t like you staring at them.”
Her group met a guy that everyone in the area knows simply as ‘Chains’ because he routinely adorns himself in industrial chains. They woke him up from a nap. He told them of a lawsuit he has going with his neighbour.
Another man was picking at his arm with a syringe. The students learned how he desperately wants to get off the streets. He had a wife and a job as a bricklayer. He lost them to drugs. The students estimated he was in his early thirties.
One Grade 11 student noticed a girl who looked to be high school aged hanging around a man who was “way older than her.” Other Downtown Eastside observations by the students: an overrepresentation of First Nations people.
“My parents always lock the doors when we drive by that area,” added one female student during the roundtable discussion on Thursday.
Justen Bungag interjected with “I feel like it’s somewhat of a stereotype to say that all street people are dangerous,” adding that some people he met were remorseful and not proud of the things they have done to get the drugs.
The afternoon spent on the Downtown Eastside is being characterized as an eye-opener by the students. The same can be said about the common misconception that drug use doesn’t exist in a high school setting.
“I hate to say it but it’s probably as prevalent as public schools,” said McCaffery, a former VPD officer.
“With independent schools there is much more pressure on the students to be high performers in society.”
An immediate hum filled the classroom. The students all chimed in.
“I’ve seen it. It’s younger students too. It’s a weird sight to be seeing someone who you think should be playing with G.I. Joes smoking pot.”
Now, it’s up to the Odd Squad graduates to talk to their peers about the repercussions of drug use. They are scheduled to give a presentation to the Grade 8 students in January. McCaffery is also exploring the possibility of having the group speak to Grade 7 students from STA’s feeder schools.