Herbst on heroin: ‘We’re not going to put our head in the sand’

A proactive, all-hands-on-deck approach has been adopted to combat Trumbull’s rising substance abuse problem and its recent spike in heroin overdoses.
State representatives and officials from a bevy of town departments, including members from the school district and local clergy, gathered at First Selectman Tim Herbst’s drug prevention task force press conference Tuesday morning and focused on ending the community’s drug epidemic.
“There is a problem here and we need to acknowledge it,” Herbst said to the room of 20-plus people.
“We’re not going to put our head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening,” he said. “We have to acknowledge it and tackle it head on.”
Police Chief Michael Lombardo will lead the town’s drug prevention task force, Herbst said. The chief’s plans include implementing three school resources officers (SROs) into the  district — one at the high school and one at each of the middle schools — and conducting random K9 drug searches at the high school when the class isn’t in session.
“We want to get this fast tracked before the next fiscal year,” Chief Lombardo said.
“The goal is to procure state funding to expedite this process,” Herbst added.
The chief also said he wants the task force to work with the Mary Sherlach Counseling Center to determine what additional resources are needed for mental health services.
On the policing side of things, Chief Lombardo said he will recommend that an additional Trumbull police officer be put on the federal drug task force.
Herbst emphasized that this task force would need a lot more than just the manpower of the police department.
“We need all the stakeholders within the community to be invested in this,” he said. “It’s a community effort, not just something the police department is doing.”
Dr. Gary Cialfi, the schools superintendent, shared the sentiment of creating a united front.
“The goal is to completely eradicate substance abuse all together,” he said. “No town can do this with just one agency.”
“We want this to be a team effort,” Herbst added. “Dr. Cialfi can’t do it by himself; Chief Lombardo can’t do it by himself — everyone at this table needs to work together.”
Schools first
Dr. Cialfi and other members who spoke during the task force’s conference Tuesday were in agreement that a lot could be done at the schools to prevent future drug abuse.
“It starts with mental health and I think the board of education’s budget reflects that,” Dr. Cialfi said. “But we have to start thinking about changing the district’s health curriculum both at the high school and at the middle schools...
“We want to intervene before something becomes a problem,” he added.
Gateway drug
While some of the discussion circled around the state’s laws surrounding marijuana usage, officials agreed that there was a new “gateway drug” to focus their collective attention on — prescription drugs.
“They’re highly addictive and they’re prescribed in excess,” Chief Lombardo said. “They are the gateway drug to heroin usage.”
The chief noted that the police department hadn’t responded to any heroin overdoses in town this year, but EMS chief Joe Laucella said his emergency responders have had to use the opioid antagonist drug Narcan that helps reverse the effects of an opiate overdose.
“We have it in all our patrol cars but none of our officers have had to use it on patrol,” Chief Lombardo said. “I hope we never have to use it, but unfortunately we’re a long way from that.”
State Rep. Dave Rutigliano agreed that the problem wasn’t going away soon.
“Heroin is a crisis — there’s an immediate emergency to combat it,” he said. “People are dying all around us.”
Broader context
Addressing a question about how heroin has found its way into Trumbull, Chief Lombardo said tracking down the exact drug channel can be difficult.
“We can’t fool ourselves,” he said. “It’s coming from everywhere...
“It’s not just a Trumbull problem,” he said. “This is a regional problem; this is a state and federal problem.”
To combat the problem at home, though, town officials encouraged parents to take a tougher stance than they have in the past.
“If you ignore it, then it will get worse,” said the Rev. Ellen Kennedy of Trinity Episcopal Church. “We need to help parents be aware as early as possible.”
“Parents need to show some tough love,” added another clergy member.
No more
Leaders from Trumbull Partnership Against Underage Drinking (TPAUD), which will add drug abuse to its objectives, talked about the pain that comes from “burying young victims.”
“I’ve had multiple kids come up and tell me, ‘I don’t want to go to another friend’s funeral,” said Town Council member Cindy Penkoff.
Jack Testani, chairman of the town’s Police Commission, said the recent overdoses have had an effect on the town’s youth population.
“Something has resonated with the young kids,” he said. “They don’t want to see any more of their peers die from drug addiction.”
Herbst said earlier in the meeting that Trumbull didn’t want to host another early funeral.
“The worst thing that can happen to me as a first selectman is attending a funeral for a young person in this community,” said Herbst. “I don’t want to have to go to any more wakes.”
Testani and Herbst agreed that the task force would welcome a youth representative.
“Absolutely, we welcome younger people to join us in this effort,” Herbst said.
Furthering the discussion
Theresa Doonan, who co-founded the Connecticut Heroin Task Force, will serve as a member of Trumbull’s prevention task force.
She said she knows of five heroin-related deaths this year that have claimed the lives of Trumbull residents — all of whom died outside of town.
“They’re all Trumbull High School graduates, and the police department won’t know about them because it didn’t happen here and it’s not discussed,” she said. “People know how they died but they just won’t say it...
“People don’t know what’s going on until it’s their neighbor or, even worse, someone in their family,” she added. “We have to further the discussion so people know it’s happening — that this problem exists right here in our community.”