Under the spotlights and in front of a single microphone on stage at Westminster High School, a parent, teacher and student wondered aloud about the successful, athletic and popular teen-ager who sustained severe brain damage from a heroin overdose.
"One minute we're kicking back, and the next minute you're gasping for air," said Andy Aitken, 18, in his role as the fictitious overdose victim's best friend during a staged presentation for hundreds of parents at last week's back-to-school night.
"I wanted to call 911 right away, but everybody was like, `Man, just give him a minute. He'll be all right. We don't want the cops coming here.' We all had a lot at stake, you understand? We could have been arrested, had records, and I don't even want to think about what my parents would have done."
The theatrical reading is the latest installment in what has become a local drug-awareness group's annual attempt to jolt complacent parents out of thinking that substance abuse issues will never afflict their children.
This year's haunting dialogue is based on real journal entries written by Thomasina Piercy in the weeks and months after her oldest son, Michael DePinto, a 6-foot-6-inch Westminster High graduate and basketball player, died of a heroin overdose. The 19-year-old's friends dropped him off at his parents' empty apartment on a cold evening in March 1999 even though it appeared he was struggling with the effects of the heroin. They later told Piercy that the fatal dose was probably her son's first.
"The trend in this county and nationally is to drop your friend off and not use your cell phone to call 911 because kids believe they're going to get in trouble and because they believe in their heart - they convince themselves - that their friend is going to be OK," said Piercy, principal of Mount Airy Elementary School and founder of a county branch of a parental awareness group called Not My Kid.
"They need to make the call," she added in an interview after last week's presentation at her son's alma mater. "Don't just drop them off. Make the call. That's what it's all about."
Organizers with Not My Kid - now in its third year in Carroll County - have recruited more than 250 skit participants this year for theatrical presentations at about 40 back-to-school and meet-the-teacher gatherings at elementary, middle and high schools across the county. Hoping to discourage kids from keeping problems - theirs or their friends' - to themselves, the parents coalition is trying to draw even more attention to the 24-hour hot line established last year.
The telephone number is printed on every high school student's school-issued identification card and on book covers distributed by the system. The phone line is staffed by adults with a complete list of phone numbers for the county's treatment programs, counseling programs and other substance abuse services. It is not associated with any law enforcement agency, although staffers will urge callers to dial 911 if they or their companions need emergency medical treatment.
When Piercy's son appeared in her dreams about a month after he died, she understood the nine words he spoke - "It's not what you say, it's what you do" - to be a warning against complacency and inaction. She was struggling at the time with whether to talk publicly about his death and interpreted his words as encouragement to use his experience with heroin to warn others.
Now, more than four years later, Piercy has gleaned additional layers of meaning from her son's admonition - that even when kids tell their parents they have no intention of using drugs, as DePinto told Piercy two months before his death, parents must remain vigilant in responding to their children's actions rather than their promises.
"He was telling me, `Parents, don't believe it,' " Piercy said. "It's not what you say. It's what you do. `I said I never wanted to use heroin. But I did.' "
It's a refrain that Piercy and her dedicated troupe of law enforcement officers, community leaders, high school drama students and families affected by substance abuse have incorporated into presentations.
This year's skit - like the Not My Kid program - also confronts parents' assumptions that children who fall victim to drugs look a certain way, don't earn good grades and reside on the periphery of their children's worlds.
"You were smart, motivated, a good athlete, a fine student. From all appearances, you looked like you had it all together," said Kathy Schnorr, a Liberty High drama teacher, in her role as the overdose victim's instructor. "Was there something I missed? You just didn't seem like the type of person who would waste his time with drugs. ... Is there some way I could have stopped you?"
The presentations have drawn the attention of Not My Kid organizers in Phoenix, where community activists offer a variety of programs and online resources for parents whose children are struggling with suicide, drug abuse, eating disorders and depression.
"Society has kind of nurtured the thought that you're a bad parent if one of these things happens to your kids. We need to change that message," said Piper Finley, executive director of Not My Kid in Phoenix.
She said parents need to stop tuning out warnings about drug abuse and other crises afflicting teen-agers, either because they're in denial that their child has a problem or because admitting such a weakness would reflect badly on them.
The Not My Kid presentations in Carroll County public schools, Finley said, are just the way to do that.
"Five minutes is not a lot of time," she said of this year's theatrical reading. "But it paints a picture that stays with people, and maybe six months from now, when a parent hears themselves say, `Not my kid, it's not happening to my kid,' this group will have planted a seed for them to remember."