During the 2011-2012 school year, three students from one public high school in west suburban Naperville died from drugs. Kelly McCutcheon was a senior at Neuqua Valley High School at the time, and she started asking her classmates questions about their drug use. The project turned into a documentary that stunned the well-to-do, family-focused community.
Kelly had enlisted a high school junior, Jack Kapson, to help with sound recording, and together they videotaped more than 20 students talking about their experiences using heroin and other drugs.
Their project was filmed starkly and informally in backyards and bedrooms and cars. The filmmakers kept the footage away from parents, teachers and police. Kelly and Jack declined to be part of this story, but they gave me permission to use any part of their movie and quote from students they interviewed.
Library agrees to host Naperville’s first look
Kelly and Jack asked Naperville’s 95th Street Public Library to host the first screening of the film, which they called, “Neuqua on Drugs."
John Spears directed all of Naperville’s public libraries at the time. “The filmmakers were working on it up till the very end,” he said. “And that was one thing we were nervous about, because we hadn’t seen it either. Given all the potential legal ramifications of showing this, we were really putting a lot of trust in two high school students.”
Library officials agreed to two showings on Wednesday evening, May 30, 2012. Advertising went out, and soon after, irate parents started calling..
Spears, the library director, remembers one phone call in particular. He received it at his desk the day before the scheduled screening. It was a parent on the other end, telling Spears, “You cannot show this movie. It’s going to be the destruction of my…. it’s just…. We will sue.”
The library decided to go forward anyway.
The evening of the first screening, adults and teenagers filed into the library auditorium and people waited outside for the second showing.
“There were many, many glitches that night,” said Denise Crosby, a longtime columnist with the Sun-Times suburban papers, including the Naperville Sun. “There were people gathered outside waiting for the next session and there were people inside for this session and there was a long delay. But [the audience was] there for the long haul…. They wanted to see it.”
Among the hundreds of people who came to the library that night were the principal from Neuqua Valley High School, a counselor from a nearby middle school, and a reporter from the local television station. Managers from Naperville’s other libraries came in to deal with the overflow crowd.
The young filmmakers had altered the voices of some speakers they videotaped, and a few kids in the film tried to mask their faces. But most participants were fully visible. And, according to accounts from people who were there, many of the participants were seated in the audience.
“When it finally did get started,” Denise Crosby said, “there wasn’t one person that was not glued to that documentary. There wasn’t sound being made at all.”
The kind of thing parents heard
“The first time I tried heroin... I’d probably say sometime during my sophomore year.”
“They were like snorting it and I snorted like some Adderall and they were like if you can snort Adderall you can snort this. It’s basically like the same thing…. You’re trying to be like happy and just like not worry about anything but you are like stressing about all these little things, and when you get high that just goes away so you can just like chill.”
“It’s gives you a really strange comfortable feeling. A feeling that everything around you is okay. It’s kind of like a false sense of security.”
Denise Crosby, the newspaper columnist, says that for the two kids who made the film, “This really was them screaming at the community: Look. Stop. Putting your head in the sand.”
One mother’s experience
For another woman in the audience that night, the film was particularly painful.
Amy Miller’s daughter Megan had died four months earlier from heroin. Megan was eighteen and a student at Neuqua when she died. The filmmakers had contacted Amy Miller beforehand to let her know that some of their interviews included stories about Megan.
And still, Miller says she wasn’t prepared for what happened when a girl in the film talked about going to see “Alice in Wonderland:”
“Megan was grounded at the time – but she convinced her mom to let us go if her mom came too. And so her mom sat on the other side of the movie theater and we were just tripping balls. Like we were sweating so bad and Megan had drawn a giant heart over her eye with eyeliner ‘cause she was the Queen of Hearts and she drew stripes on my face because she was the Cheshire Cat.”
“I had no idea,” Amy Miller told me when I talked with her recently. “And here they were rows behind me in the theater and they took acid to watch the movie. And this is the first I’m hearing about this, sitting in the library among hundreds of people, and the girl was in the row behind me and she leaned forward and apologized to me…. And that was pretty tough, you know? That was really hard. I was angry. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. It was like my daughter, I didn’t know her.”
Library head John Spears said that feeling of disconnect was common among adults the evening of the screening, and for a long time. “It’s the one thing I heard over and over and over from everyone is: How could this have been happening and we didn’t even know it?” Underneath their confusion, he says, was shock. There was a sentiment among some people in Naperville that “these kinds of things don’t happen here.”
I spoke to dozens of people in Naperville and I asked everyone, “Did this harsh film make a difference?”
The high school principal pointed to a student-led discussion program, which he says was being created at the same time students were making the documentary. Neuqua’s also part of an innovative pilot program specific to heroin--it’s a project of the Robert Crown Center for Health Education. That program is in two middle schools that feed into Neuqua, too.
A parent group recently got money from the city to create parent conversation circles.
Naperville police track where users live and sometimes do surveillance on kids buying drugs on Chicago’s West Side.
Early on in my reporting, Jack Kapson - the young filmmaker who helped create “Neuqua on Drugs” - said heroin was still a problem in Naperville, though he thought it had gone back underground since the film was released.
In 2013 so far, Naperville has had three confirmed heroin deaths—down from six in 2011. Police stress, however, that the number of overdoses means kids are still using as much as they did in recent years.
Columnist Denise Crosby says it’s a mistake to think “Neuqua on Drugs” was one high school’s story, or even Naperville’s story. “People started looking at this as “Oh, this is Neuqua Valley on drugs. So that’s Neuqua’s problem.” And that’s just simply – again I cannot reiterate that enough – that is simply not the case. Yeah, Neuqua was the epicenter for this. But this issue is in all of our high schools. It’s everywhere. In all of our communities.”
The film, she says, should have been titled, “Your High School on Drugs.”