When the WisconsinEye set out to film a documentary about youth opioid use, the goal was to produce something raw, something real.

Jon Henkes mug

Jon Henkes is president and CEO of WisconsinEye.

“Kids told us that D.A.R.E. and scare tactics don’t work, and adults lecturing at them doesn’t work,” said Jon Henkes, president and CEO of WisconsinEye, a nonpartisan organization that covers state politics and policy.

“Friend-to-friend, peer-to-peer ... is what grabs and holds their attention. If you put real people in front of a camera and let them tell their stories, that will have the best chance of making an impact.”

The resulting work, “Straight Forward: The Truth About Addiction,” will be screened at Aquinas middle and high schools on Tuesday. Afterward, there will be a panel with intervention and prevention experts, and an opportunity for students to ask questions.

“If we can impact one life at Aquinas next week, rescue one kid because he or she was emboldened to talk to a teacher or coach or adult, it will have been worth it,” Henkes said.

Through interviews with five young people, the documentary illustrates how trouble at home and seemingly harmless marijuana use can set students on a slide toward dark places.

Though they came from all different backgrounds — geographically, ethnically and socioeconomically speaking — four of the five students smoked marijuana before transiting to pills and harder drugs.

“While some would argue that marijuana is not a gateway drug, perhaps chemically … it does put kids in a culture of using a substance that graduates them into using something more powerful and addictive,” Henkes said.

Trouble at home is another factor.

“One common thing is kids with chaos in their lives, whether at home or school,” he added. “They talk about escaping their current reality and finding a place of peace.”

WisconsinEye has screened “Straight Forward” in more than a dozen schools and communities across the state, and plans to visit other parts of western Wisconsin over the next few months.

In addition to the showings on Tuesday, WisconsinEye will host a community-wide screening at Aquinas High School the evening of Oct. 23. The network is partnering with the Coulee Recovery Center to host the event.

“It’s not a highly produced, Hollywood-type production with actors — these are real kids being very, very vulnerable,” Henkes said. “I think kids who are 13, 14, 15, 16 can relate to it. It’s their reality.”

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Kyle Farris can be reached at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Kyle_A_Farris.


Kyle Farris covers education for the La Crosse Tribune. Reach him at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com.

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