Prosecutors in Ocean and Cape May counties are preparing to unveil education programs for the upcoming school year in the battle against what authorities said is a heroin epidemic in the southern part of the state.

Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said he and investigators and prosecutors from his office visited three high schools in Toms River last Friday for their first presentation. They’re heading south next to Southern and Pinelands regional high schools.

“We are starting this program and doing trial runs now. We want to be up and running by September. Basically, I want to give the kids a heads up that I am coming,” Coronato said.

Coronato said he plans on getting parents involved as well by attending all the county’s back-to-school nights this fall.

In Cape May County, Prosecutor Robert Taylor said a team of detectives is working on an education plan with county police chiefs, Cape Assist and area school superintendents. The plan is expected to roll out this fall, Taylor said.

Similar to Coronato’s education plan, Taylor said, students will see a PowerPoint presentation about the dangers of heroin use as part of the program.

Authorities are looking for input from educators as they continue to create the education program, Taylor said.

“Our police chiefs are going to be meeting with school board members to support this program and approve it to go into the schools,” he said.

In Ocean County, school education is the latest initiative in a series of attempts by Coronato to fight what he said is a worsening heroin abuse and overdose crisis in Ocean County. His plan is to continue to attack, he said.

It won’t just be education, either. It’s about enforcement as well and abiding by the idea of a drug-free school zone, Coronato said.  

“Dogs will start coming into schools by September. I want to let the kids know we’re going to be checking the lockers, desks, bookbags and the bathrooms because we know that’s where the deals are done. We’re also going to be searching the parking lots, too,” he said.

Last month, nine people died of heroin overdoses in eight days in Ocean County — the youngest victim a 17-year-old boy from Barnegat. The county has had 42 drug-related deaths since January and the average age of the victims is 20 to 24 years old, Coronato said.

“Why am I doing this? I come in and I’m telling these kids that I’ve got people overdosing every day in this county. I can’t live with myself as a prosecutor with this going on and not do something about it,” he said.  

This month, Coronato and a team of investigators and prosecutors from his office are showing a DVD to students about the dangers and effects of drug use as part of their 35 minute presentation.

Coronato said he is telling students where and how the drugs are coming into the United States — from such places as Colombia and in the insides of people who ingest the drugs and are used as mules to transport the substances.

He tells the students people also use dogs to transport drugs. “They drug the dogs, cut them open and stuff them with drugs, and later, once the drugs have been transported, the dog is killed,” he said.

The reaction from students to this information during the presentation is silence and shock, he said.

“I want them to know where the drugs have been and where they are coming from and what they do to people. We need to bring them down to tears. If I save one life in my five years as a prosecutor, that’s success,” he said.

Little Egg Harbor Township Police Chief Richard Buzby said he will not tolerate drugs in the township’s schools — whether it’s in the hands of students or faculty — and an education program can help.

Buzby pointed to the 2011 arrests of two Pinelands Regional High School educators on drug charges and said it is behavior that is unacceptable.

In October 2011, 56-year-old Pinelands Regional High School Assistant Principal Christopher Peters and another township man were arrested on drug charges. Police said 41-year-old township resident Mark Kilmurray went to Pinelands Regional High School and sold Roxicet pills to Peters during the school day.

Coronato said part of his enforcement initiative will also include being notified if there are any issues with teachers or school faculty who are using drugs or under the influence of alcohol in the school.

“It was deeply disturbing for me. Mr. Peters was a good guy and he became addicted and was stealing from students’ lockers to pay for the habit. When your police department has to go into the school and arrest the principal on drug charges, we have a serious problem,” Buzby said.

Southern Regional School District Superintendent Craig Henry said he attended a county superintendents roundtable last month where Coronato presented an overview of goals and objectives for his plans for the drug education program.

Henry said he saw firsthand Coronato’s passion for these issues and the district will support anything he is preparing to do.

“Do we have our share of students involved in substance abuse? Of course we do, but none that I know of have defied our attempts to recover,” Henry said.  

Not only as a school superintendent but also as a parent, drug use in the county is concerning for Henry, he said.

“It doesn’t surprise me the MO of drug dealers and their underhanded attempts for drugs to work their way into our culture,” Henry said.

Ocean, Cape May and Monmouth counties are showing the highest increase in treatment admissions since 2006 for heroin and other opiates, according to statistics from Gov. Chris Christie’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

The state Department of Health and Human Services released a study last fall that reported that treatment-program admissions have increased in Cape May County by 154 percent since 2006 for heroin and other opiate users under age 25.

Contact Donna Weaver:

609-226-9198

Follow Donna Weaver on Twitter @DonnaKWeaver

Been working with the Press for about 27 years.