Instead of the full "roses and thorns" today, let's focus on ROSES to members of the community moving forward the conversation about how to address problems related to addiction to heroin and other drugs in Bennington.

A panel discussion held Friday on the town's reaction to a recent New York Times article about Bennington's heroin problem included school officials, law enforcement, health care and counseling service representatives as well as local and state government officials.

The big question on everyone's minds seemed to be ‘where do we go from here?'

"The silver lining in this article is that I think this can be an opportunity to galvanize us all together," said Tom Dee, president and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Health Care -- one of the panelists. "...We have an opportunity to make a large impact here."

Mount Anthony Union High School Principal Sue Maguire said her biggest concern with the Times article was that it quoted a Vermont State Trooper saying "The kids are doing (heroin) right in school" and the high school is littered with drug baggies.

"We have never found a single baggie in the hallways, and kids aren't shooting up in the hallways," Maguire told the panel. "The sensationalism (in the article) negates the important work that we do."

Some of that important work, according to Kristyn Harrington, MAUHS assistant principal/school-based clinician, includes an on-campus support group for students who are affected by addiction.

Harrington also suggested that if a local parent is arrested on a drug charge, perhaps law enforcement could let children in the household know that there's help for them at school.

She added that it's important for young students that drug prevention education is ongoing on a day-to-day basis -- not just a once-and-done thing. Hammering the message home a little bit at a time will help it to sink in.

Banner Publisher Ed Woods said as a parent of two young children he's witnessed that "the work we do in our school doesn't start at the high school" in regard to drug education and prevention.

Regarding a planned written town response to the New York Times regarding the article, Woods said "I don't think our response should be defensive -- I think it should be truthful." Town Manager Stuart Hurd said he planned to take the rest of the day working on a draft letter to the Times.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who participated in the panel by phone from the Statehouse in Montpelier, said it's important that when someone is arrested for drugs in Vermont that treatment be immediately available. Bennington is lacking in the prevention area and in treatment options, he said.

"I would like to have a methadone treatment center in Bennington" or even a mobile one, he said.

Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the senate unanimously passed S.295 on Wednesday -- legislation which encourages state's attorneys to divert alleged criminals before trial, at a time when they might be amenable to it, to receive drug treatment.

"The bill would give state's attorneys the option to reduce or defer sentencing of those who seek treatment," said Ralph Provenza, executive director of United Counseling Service.

Currently UCS serves nearly 400 people with substance abuse issues, he said. It would be helpful if more physicians could provide medication to those who suffer from addiction.

It also would be helpful if the courts could identify those who are amenable to treatment, he said, per the aim of S.295.

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette added "there needs to be a way to treat the people what we don't arrest ... so they can be productive members of this community."

He added, "We have to come up with a new way to help people with this problem."

Those are just some of the talking points from Friday's discussion on the town's heroin problem. To get the full story, read Banner Staff Writer Keith Whitcomb Jr.'s account of the discussion, beginning on page 1.

Bringing these community leaders, in their varied yet connected fields, together at one table to talk about ways to improve the addiction problem that affects our town is just one sentence in the ongoing conversation.

At least, it is a conversation we hope will continue.

~Michelle Karas