Year after overdoses of 13-year-old boys, Park City leaders see changed community
They say residents have begun to confront issues of drug abuse and mental health
Out of tragedy came a glimmer of hope.
In the weeks after the overdose deaths of 13-year-old Treasure Mountain Junior High School students Ryan Ainsworth and Grant Seaver last September, Ember Conley, superintendent of the Park City School District, began to see a change. The community was stunned and shaken, but parents and other leaders at last seemed determined to confront a dangerous drug culture that had been lurking for years.
Conley, stirred by the wave of people eager to lend their support, was hopeful. But she knew the fight would be long and arduous. One unsettling question lingered: Would the desire for change fade in the coming months, when Ryan and Grant’s names were gone from the headlines and life in Park City returned to normal?
As she entered the week marking the one-year anniversary of the boys’ deaths, Conley was heartened by the answer she’s received so far: It hasn’t.
“It was a unifying force,” she said. “And if you look at how communities change, it’s not by the school district. It’s by community members and organizations coming together.”
The school district has led the charge.
Conley learned of the circumstances surrounding Ryan and Grant’s deaths along with the rest of the community. They’d gotten their hands on U-47700, a synthetic opioid commonly called pink, which a 15-year-old acquaintance had ordered from China over the dark web. Like everyone else, Conley grieved. But almost immediately, she and the district leapt into action.
Throughout the rest of the school year, the district held several events to raise awareness among students and within the community about both the dangers of drug abuse and mental health. At the same time, school leaders began implementing a philosophy shift regarding how they view their roles as educators. Before they can teach students math, English and science, they decided, they must ensure that students’ most basic needs are met. They need to feel safe, healthy, supported and loved.
“They have to have those things in order to learn,” Conley said.
To that end, the district created a new administrative position this summer, an associate superintendent of student wellness who oversees the counseling staff, Latino outreach efforts and the special education program. The goal is to provide students with resources to overcome issues like anxiety and depression and to stay away from ever getting involved in drugs.
Conley said the effort will take years, but school leaders are already seeing successes.
“In the wake of tragedy, there’s been celebration in the fact that I really think that the measures that we’re taking will save more children,” she said.
The change has perhaps been most evident at Treasure Mountain Junior High School, where Ryan and Grant were best friends. Principal Emily Sutherland said their deaths thrust a sense of urgency upon school leaders to address the issues because tomorrow may be too late.
“The most important thing is that we’re efficient and quickly do our best to establish a strong, positive school culture, where students feel a sense of connection and feel like they have some kind of adult advocate in the building,” she said.
Many in the community were inspired into action, as well, as local government officials have pledged to address the issues of drug use and mental health.
Summit County, for instance, started a Communities That Care initiative aimed at curbing substance abuse and created the Mental Wellness Alliance to address large gaps in the county’s treatment offerings.
The efforts have earned buy-in from influential people and groups throughout the area. Among them is CONNECT Summit County, a nonprofit started by Parkites Ed and Lynne Rutan, whose own lives had been changed by their son’s mental illness.
Ed Rutan said that last September’s events marked a turning point in the community’s willingness to confront the topics of mental health and substance abuse.
Amid heartbreak, he said, the promise of a better future was born.
“We don’t know whether mental health was involved in the deaths, but it was certainly a horrendous tragedy,” he said. “It made people think about the possibility of being more willing to talk about it, and I think that’s a very positive thing.”