We, the students of Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington, Vt., were disappointed to read the recent New York Times article, "Heroin Scourge Overtakes a ‘Quaint’ Vermont Town" (March 5, 2014). This article has literally been the talk of the town, bringing rise to feelings of anger, frustration, enmity, and animosity, but also of great sadness. In conversation, the majority of those we have spoken with have felt that the facts of the article were embellished, and that the reporter did not adequately corroborate all statements that were made to ensure reporting accuracy. It seems that there was either a distinct misinterpretation of what was stated, or we were misrepresented. We, the youth of the town of Bennington, feel that the integrity of our reputation has been seriously damaged, and unjustly so.
Of most concern was this, "’Everyone is doing it’ (a Vermont State Trooper) said of heroin. ‘It’s in the high school. The kids are doing it right in school. You find Baggies in the hallway.’" We feel that this quote, from this police officer, who according to our yearbook only worked here briefly from 2006-2007, was inaccurate because he has no current working knowledge of usage on our campus. In addition, when he did work here, there were no Baggies lying about our hallways. We have asked our teachers, many of them veteran teachers with decades as educators in our establishment under their belt, as well as our administrators, and have determined that this statement is blatantly false. We have yet to locate one educator who has observed any baggies of drugs in our hallways. When we questioned several members of the Buildings and Grounds crew, the men and women who service our school and maintain it, they couldn’t think of an instance where this occurred either. According to our most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, our school ranks significantly lower than the state in heroin use with 1 percent or less of the population ever even trying the drug.
We feel that this falsehood has served to create damage to students like us, and to the reputation of our school. We have aspirations. As youths ready to set out on endeavors beyond our town’s borders, we’ve all begun the process of building our future. Many of us are applying for jobs or for admittance to colleges throughout the country. However, we are finding that our reputation, and the reputation of our school and community, has been seriously and irreparably tarnished. Right now, it is highly competitive out there for jobs, for grants, for scholarships. Our community is already struggling financially. We need jobs here. We need opportunities. We need companies and families to move here. Branding our town as home to "a bunch of drug addicts" will impact our local businesses and the heart of our economy, tourism. We feel that we have been served an injustice in this manner.
In comparison with other Vermont towns, or other towns in the Northeast region, or even other towns across the country, we feel we are no different. The use of heroin in our community is no more than in other places. We feel that the article does not paint an adequate portrait of our true community and, instead, feeds readers a sensationalist story of disproportionate drug use.
Although the article mentioned Vermont as high on Gallup’s well-being index, the reporter quoted one recovering addict as saying, "There’s nothing to do here. Come wintertime, everyone is inside using." The reporter noted that the recovering addicts who were interviewed did not participate in any of the diverse activities that our community has to offer during a typical beautiful New England winter, nor did they have jobs.
There are many things to do here in Bennington besides smoke pot or do heroin. There are infinite activities to partake in, just as there are in every place. An individual living in our town has so many varied options: Participate in bowling, swimming, sledding, skating, skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, or numerous organized athletics; join a school club; explore photography; learn to hunt or partake in ice fishing; become active in the theater, musical, or visual arts; host or attend a get together or event with friends; attend any of the numerous plays, festivals, and presentations at one of our local museums, businesses, churches, community centers, theaters, arts exchanges, or our three local colleges. Still bored? Rent, stream, or download a movie or film; take up a hobby; make something; cook and eat dinner with your family; do something nice for a neighbor or someone in need; volunteer at any local organization; make your teachers proud and pick up a book; or get a job! If you are looking for something to do, there is always something constructive to participate in, or to occupy your time.
The assertion that people in small towns have nothing to do logically makes little sense because there are small towns across the country and not all have major drug problems. Conversely, there are many large cities with major drug problems and they surely have more to do than is offered in our "quaint" rural town. Yet, the choices people make are their own. These choices are individual and are a sign of personal character and integrity. Our teachers and our community strive to foster integrity, respect, strength of character, and personal discipline. Our family, school, and community members encourage us to make wise choices, not run amok of the law or ruin our lives and futures with drug use.
When faced with difficult situations (such as economic hardships, the pressures of media, desensitization, navigating difficult social situations, feelings of inferiority, finding and forming personal identity) as many youth like us experience, the majority of our peers are choosing to make responsible decisions, learn how to look and actively plan toward the future, and engage in healthy activities. We state this as a fact, based not only on our personal experiences and observations, but also on statistics. While drug use may be an increasing problem in Bennington, it does not by any stretch of the imagination represent our town as a whole. The vast majority of the residents of our town, including us, make healthy and meaningful personal choices as to the activities we participate in. We have direction in our lives, and the "seemingly endless Vermont winters" have only served to make us hearty and resilient.
All tendencies and behaviors develop from choices that we, as young people, make. The choices made by these recovering addicts are significant. The reporter noted, "several recovering addicts here say they do not feel a part of (the Vermont that ranks high on the Gallup’s well-being index). They do not ski, or have jobs, or have much to look forward to." Perhaps those who find no meaning to their lives do so because they do not actively work to give their lives true meaning. We believe this is the cycle of addiction and this is where intervention efforts need to focus. Disengagement and apathy seem to be the chronic themes of the three recovering addicts who were interviewed. Our teachers here in the program we attend at Mount Anthony Union High School have taught us that belonging to a community is dependent on seeking ways to contribute to that community. The more a person contributes, the greater their sense of accomplishment, investment, ownership, and purpose. The more a person contributes, the more they take away and the more they grow.
In conclusion, we feel that when someone slanders a person, an organization, or a community, making sure that the general public is informed and aware of the inaccuracies is vital. The people who were interviewed for this article appear to be trying to blame their addiction on things besides themselves, and their own personal choices. They do not represent our community, nor do they speak for it. They do not speak for us. The article in the New York Times has served to galvanize us to work harder; to search for ways to offer more; to fully appreciate the school we attend and to recognize how many people care about our success; and to actively focus on our responsibilities to our friends, our families, and our community.
The students and staff of the Quantum Leap Exhibit Program of Mount Anthony Union High School.