"If you really want it, you can get it,'' claims Plue
, 15, who said she does not do drugs. "New Fairfield is like New York City. If you have your connections, you have easy access.''
First Selectman Peggy Katkocin
, who is also chief of police, confirms that the semi-rural town with winding, tree-lined roads and resort homes on Candlewood Lake has a serious drug problem.
She said last week that both local and state police have been investigating substance abuse in New Fairfield trying to track down the sources of drugs.
"The police are not ignoring this matter. They're trying to get to the core of who actually provides the drugs,'' Katkocin said.
This month's death of 18-year-old New Fairfield High graduate William "Willie'' Barnaby
has highlighted a growing drug abuse problem that should, perhaps, comes as no surprise to residents. After all, other suburban towns in the region - Newtown in particular - have been trying to come to grips in recent years with a huge increase in substance abuse among young people.
Barnaby was found dead in bed at his New Fairfield home around midday on Sept. 11 after attending a party the night before where police say there was underage drinking. Police say the parents of the 16-year-old girl who gave the party were away.
Friends say Barnaby was drinking but was not obviously drunk. But many young people in town say they have heard that he may have taken Oxycontin, a strong painkiller sometimes abused by recreational drug users.
"I think this has been a huge wake up call for a lot of people,'' said 17-year-old Alex Dafilis
. "I have seen an increase in the number of people in town doing drugs but I think everyone is going to be a lot more careful now.''
Chris Turchiano, a 16-year-old high school senior, said he has noticed an increase in the number of students drinking. "I know a lot of people who are lightening up after what happened'' with Barnaby, Turchiano said.
With Barnaby's family calling on the town to do more to keep alcohol and drugs away from young people, Katkocin said she will consider proposing an ordinance prohibiting underage drinking on private property. Under existing state law, police may only arrest juveniles drinking in public places.
Thirty-eight other towns in Connecticut, including Newtown, Ridgefield, Redding and Brookfield, have already enacted the ordinance. They say it gives them a legal tool for breaking up parties at private homes.
"I think this would be a good step and may serve as a deterrent, but I wouldn't be surprised if some people objected on the grounds it would be an invasion of privacy,'' Katkocin said. "I want to find out how other communities are dealing with this. I believe many people in New Fairfield would like to see our town more empowered to combat the issue.''
Interviews last week with town officials and students revealed some of the extent of the problem.
"I know there are people outside the high school who sell drugs to students,'' said Plue. "If you want alcohol, you can take it from your parents, use fake IDs or get older people to get it for you.''
, a 15-year-old junior, said most underage drinking parties happen in teen's homes while the parents are away. "It's easy. You give money to older people and get other people to get" alcohol, said Dommermuth.
Last year, police caught freshmen and sophomores selling hard liquor to middle school students in the high school's lower parking lot. The high school students were sent home, but never charged.
"There have been reports of drugs coming in from Danbury and across the line in Brewster. Police sometimes find drugs and drug paraphernalia during routine traffic stops,'' Katkocin said. "It's a growing problem because of the greater availability and accessibility of drugs."
, who works on substance abuse prevention in the New Fairfield school district, described the increase in excessive underage drinking among local children as "substantial.''
"People don't realize how dangerous it is and how easily a person can overdose on alcohol,'' said Shea, the district's student assistance counselor. "Many kids are afraid to call 911 when a friend overdoses because they don't want to get into trouble.''
Shea said students and other young people in New Fairfield have been involved in a variety of drugs, ranging from marijuana to prescription drugs such as Oxycontin.
"Sometimes they've been called 'the flavor of the month,'�'' said Shea. "At one time it was Ecstasy. Before that it was GHB. I think Fairfield County in general has seen an increase in drinking and smoking pot. Our community is no different than the others but in some circles in New Fairfield, it's become acceptable.''
GHB, gamma hydroxybutyrate, is a colorless, odorless liquid popular at parties that gives its users a sense of euphoria. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
has linked GHB to 58 deaths since 1990 and thousands of overdoses. It's also known as the "date rape drug" because men have been known to spike women's drinks with it.
Shea believes that because New Fairfield, until Barnaby's death, has not experienced some of the tragedies suffered by other towns, many residents have failed to recognize that New Fairfield itself has "a serious problem.''
"We need parents, students and the community as a whole to get involved,'' said Shea.
Reacting to Barnaby's death, high school principal Alicia Roy
said last week that the school's Partners in Education
meeting of faculty and parents this month would be devoted to discussing the problem of substance abuse.
"We encourage all parents to come to school meetings, but I have invited all parents to this particular meeting to focus on the issue to try to make sure this doesn't happen again,'' Roy said.
Roy said she would use Barnaby as an example of "a good person who unfortunately came to an untimely death.''
In another move, the high school will also start running a new monthly program this fall called Connections, that will bring teachers and students together to discuss various issues, including substance abuse.
School officials point out that a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program already operates in the middle school and that the district's health curriculum includes drug and alcohol awareness classes.
Still, said interim Superintendent Robert Goldman
, schools can only deliver the message about the hazards of drugs. They can't force students to accept it.
"We cannot police every party, every gathering or every opportunity that presents itself for young people to be in the presence of alcohol and drugs,'' Goldman said. "We have to count on parents talking to their kids and hope community organizations will work together to help children make better choices.''
Barnaby's death also caught the attention of Dorrie Carolan
, co-president of the Newtown Parent Connection Inc., a non-profit group that helps families with substance abuse problems. Last week, Carolan said she plans to invite school and community groups in New Fairfield to join the group's work.
"I've been approaching other towns as well,'' said Carolan. "If we take a hard stand together as a community, we can make a difference.''
One New Fairfield parent, Avril Mattimore
, whose daughter started middle school this month, described the substance abuse problem in town as a "huge'' concern.
"All you want is the best for your children, but I see some of the older ones in our neighborhood doing things they shouldn't be doing,'' Mattimore said.
After Mattimore's home was once robbed of jewelry and cash, she said police told her the thieves probably wanted money to buy drugs.
, the 37-year-old father of two girls, ages 5 and 3, said parents need to educate their children when they are still young on the dangers of substance abuse.
"The problem is rampant in every district so you have to keep reinforcing the dangers,'' Manning said.
, New Fairfield's police school resource officer, deals with students' substance abuse problems every day. He said if other young people can learn something from Barnaby's death, "it would be a plus.''
"Willie was a good kid with a good heart,'' said Casey. "The biggest problem for students is that they've reached the age when they think they're invincible. They think it can't happen to them.''
Casey said when he talks to students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, they listen carefully at the time but later tend to return to old habits.
"Drugs and alcohol are available in all the towns and it's a big problem,'' Casey said. "We just try to deal with it. I wish there was a magic way of getting rid of it but there isn't.''
Contact Brian Saxton
or at (203) 731-3332.