U.S. attorney encourages student-athletes

WEIRTON – U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld was in Hancock County Tuesday to encourage student athletes to make smart decisions when it comes to drugs and social media.

Ihlenfeld’s visit was part of “Project Future Two-a-Days,” a new program designed to help kids avoid missteps with social media, relationships and drugs.

“They hear it from parents and coaches all the time,” he said. “When they hear it from outside voices, sometimes they’re more likely to listen.”

Ihlenfeld said Project Future was originally a drug education initiative. Launched nearly a year ago, its mission was to “educate young people, try to prevent them from going down the same path so many others have gone down.”

“Toward the end of the year, some of the administrators at the schools we were visiting asked if could incorporate information about social media and some of the trouble young people can find themselves in if they’re not careful with technology. So at the end of our drug education programs, we began talking about those issues. We really didn’t spend a lot of time on it, it was almost a last-minute thing but we did our best to incorporate it at the end. The reaction was very positive. We found out a lot of administrators are interested in having this message brought into the schools.”

The idea, he said, is to give kids “as real a picture as we can” of what can happen if they’re not careful.

He use drug abuse is rampant, not just in the Northern Panhandle but all of West Virginia: On a per capita basis, the Mountain State ranks No. 2 in the nation in drug deaths per 100,000 population. “I don’t have the exact number of deaths with me, but unfortunately West Virginia is near the top of the list in that particular ranking,” he said.

“We realize we cannot arrest our way out of the problem,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to do more and more education. If we can stop the demand, if there’s no demand for drugs in our community, suppliers will go elsewhere but right now there’s a market, there’s money to be made in Northern West Virginia for drugs. We have to educate our youth so we’re not spending money to buy drugs, and hand-in-hand with that we have to have aggressive enforcement of our drug laws and go after the source of the supply.”

Ihlenfeld said illegal drugs seem to be coming from Pittsburgh, Columbus, Baltimore and Detroit. “Drugs flow from those bigger markets into our smaller towns.” But even legitimately prescribed pain medications can lead to a lifetime of problems, he said.

“Everybody knows somebody who’s been touched by the addiction problem in the Ohio Valley,” he said. “That’s part of our message – we give examples, descriptions of people, like former All-OVAC athletes who found themselves battling addiction, to try and relate to the audience. We want them to see it can happen to you, it can happen to anyone. Drug addiction does not discriminate. It can grab hold of you innocently … maybe you’re injured and (doctors) prescribe pain medication to deal with post-surgery pain you’re experiencing and (you) get hooked.”

He said West Virginia “is one of the most medicated states in the country. For whatever reason, people in West Virginia are prescribed a lot of medicine. It can happen to anyone, and if you’re not careful you can get hooked on OxyContin or another pain killer. Ultimately, it very often leads to heroin, which is so deadly.”

He said drug overdoses are killing too many young people, “and heroin, in my opinion, is the most deadly thing we’re dealing with right now in the Ohio Valley and the Northern District. They don’t know what the purity level is, they don’t know how they’re bodies are going to react.”

Ihlenfeld said alcohol remains a perennial problem, “and if it doesn’t harm or kill someone, it certainly impairs your judgment and causes you to do things you normally wouldn’t do, and that can tie back into social media and technology. Your judgment isn’t what it typically is when alcohol becomes involved.”

He said a big part of the program now is making sure that young people understand what constitutes sexual assault as well as things like “what is consent, what does it mean for someone to not be able to consent to sex, that no really does mean no.”

“We finish with social media responsibility, talking with them about the trouble teens can find themselves in,” he said. Modern day technology “allows them to access world.”

“At one presentation, somebody made the analogy that it’s almost like having a loaded gun with these devices. You have to be so careful in how you use them. If not, there are serious consequences that can be lifelong. With that piece of the program, we try to stress that they’re young and there’s a lot going on in their lives, but it’s important now, more than ever, to realize decisions they are making really can have a lifelong impact.”

“We compare it to 20 years ago, when information wasn’t available so if you made a mistake it wasn’t going be out there forever, it may very well have been forgotten. But today, you can’t take something back that’s put out in cyberspace. We give them real life examples … young people, professional athletes and college athletes … who have done things with social media/technology that they regret. It can be a tweet that’s embarrassing, or something criminal. But young people around the country have been prosecuted for sending inappropriate messages or creating inappropriate images. We’re hoping the examples we give them resonate, that they’ll think about the potential consequences.”