Richard Dunlap, the principal at East High School near West Chester, has confronted many students about drug use and has long been an active supporter of parental antidrug initiatives.
So when his son Tim started displaying telltale signs, Dunlap, 49, a burly former Marine with a can-do attitude, took up the same battle in his own family in an effort to save his child, a 2008 Garnet Valley High School graduate.
After Tim admitted his addiction this year, his family saw him through an agonizing detoxification process. "We thought we had our son back," Dunlap said.
But despite spotting the trouble signs and getting help, the family was unable to save Tim. Dunlap's son was drawn back to the company of friends who continued to use drugs, he said, and in September Tim died of an overdose at 19.
To help parents avoid the same fate by sharing the pain and the lessons learned, Dunlap has told his son's story to groups of parents and students at Radnor High School during the last two weeks.
"The message I have to convey to you is to open communications, with our children, with our schools, our community, and even more so with the parents" of our children, he said.
Dunlap, principal at East since 2002, told the parents he and his family had done a lot of things right in the months-long struggle to save Tim. But because they were trying to protect Tim from getting a bad reputation, "we didn't communicate with the parents [of the friends] that Tim hung with. We were trying to do this on our own for our son," he said.
That meant there was no way the Dunlaps and other parents could collectively address the drug use in Tim's circle of friends, he said, so when one of Tim's buddies started offering him drugs again, they didn't know until it was too late.
A football star, an athlete in several sports, and an outdoorsman, Tim Dunlap was popular with students and teachers and part of a close-knit family. He "was a life-of-the-party kind of guy, very outgoing," said Mike Ricci, Tim's high school football coach. "He was one of the few kids who could connect with kids from every group throughout the school. . . . There was a lot of life, a lot of energy in that boy."
But Tim was also addicted to painkillers, which he started using recreationally with some of his high school friends. When he began attending West Chester University, his problems intensified to the point that he didn't even try out for the football team and flunked out. He entered rehab in May.
On Labor Day weekend, while watching college football at a friend's house, Tim took a mixture of OxyContin, Percocet, and Xanax and drank some beer. He unintentionally "just put himself to sleep. His body just shut down," his father said. After Tim's death, his friends came forward to talk about their own addiction, Dunlap said. And "on the day he was buried, six kids went away to rehab. To this day they are not using."
At a talk last week, Liz Ruff, mother of a junior at West Chester East and president of the Parent Teacher Organization there, helped Dunlap push the message home. "What happened . . . is a wake-up call for us," she said. "It shows that this can happen to anyone. It's not bad kids, it's not the bad neighborhoods, it's not the uninvolved parents. There's no place to hide. . . . If you're one of the lucky ones and it's not your child that's experimenting, it's your child's best friend. . . . You have to ask yourself, 'What can I do at home? What am I not doing? What am I not hearing about?' "
Parents understood. "You can never let your guard down, because even if you are thinking you are doing the right thing, bad things can happen," said Kristi Rowland, parent of a ninth grader at Radnor High.
Dunlap also had a strong effect when he met with Radnor High juniors and seniors. Several sought help afterward, principal Mark Schellenger said.
Jordan Fink, a senior, said the talk had been "powerful."
"I could imagine that this was one of my friends, and how horrible that would be," he said. "You want to cover for your family or friends. You don't want to tell on them. But you have to talk to someone about some things if it gets too out of hand."
Tim Dunlap's overdose illustrates the growing use of illicit prescription drugs and the rise in resulting deaths. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, deaths from opioid analgesics, which include Percocet, OxyContin, Vicodin, and Darvon, more than tripled, from 4,000 to 13,800, between 1999 and 2006, the latest year for which figures are available. They were involved in almost 40 percent of all poisoning deaths that year, the agency said. According to a report from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the overall 2005 drug-overdose mortality rate "translates into 22,400 unintentional and intentional drug overdose deaths. To put this in context, just over 17,000 homicides occurred in 2005."
In a 2007 11 percent of high school seniors in a Chester County youth survey said they had used tranquilizers, including Xanax, illicitly in the preceding year. And 13 percent of 12th graders said they had used opioid analgesics for nonmedical purposes.
To learn more about teen drug use and what parents can do to prevent it, go to http://go.philly.com/antidrug