For Marlborough students, flags are visual reminder of opioid crisis


By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor

Marlborough High School students place flags on the school’s lawn.

Marlborough – As the opioid crisis continues to devastate more and more families every year, school educators are using a number of ways to try to teach kids about the dangers of these drugs.

For the last five years, under the direction of Marlborough resident Kathy Leonard, purple flags are placed on the lawn of the city’s Walker Building in anticipation of a vigil to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day (Aug. 31). The flags each represent a person who died of an overdose in the state the prior year. For Leonard, this is very personal – her only child, Jonathan Testa, died of a heroin overdose in December 2012.

After this year’s vigil, Leonard, with the support of the Marlborough Public School administration, brought just over 2,000 small purple flags to both Marlborough High School (MHS) and the 1Lt. Charles W. Whitcomb Middle School.

She first shared her story with the MHS students on Sept. 9, detailing how her son was “just like them,” enjoying many typical teenage activities. Bu then he started smoking marijuana when he was 17, and then in his 20s, unfortunately got hooked on stronger drugs, ultimately dying of an overdose at age 27.

“He was not a bad person, he just made a bad decision,” she told the students. ”It’s important to remember that this can happen to anyone. The decisions you make today are important.”

“It’s also important to help each other – if you see someone using drugs tell an adult,” she added. “You are not ratting them out. You’d rather have someone angry at you than go to their funeral.”

After listening to Leonard, the students were invited, if they so desired, to write a name on the flags of someone they loved who had been affected by the opioid crisis. They then placed the flags on the lawn near the school. Several were visibly moved doing so, with some also taking a few moments to talk to Leonard privately.

After placing the flags, several students also shared their thoughts on what the event meant to them.

One student, Manoela, noted that placing the flags was “a way to make sure that those who died are remembered.”

“It helped raise awareness especially to high school students who need to know about this,” Nicole said.

“It’s very impactful,” said Matt, an athlete on several teams. ”Drugs are nothing to fool around with. It doesn’t just affect your you, but also your family and everyone in the community.”

The next day, Leonard met with students at the Whitcomb School, again sharing her story before the flags were placed.

“I’m really grateful to you all,” she told them, “for participating in this. It really means a lot to me.”

As were the MHS students, the young Whitcomb students were also visibly moved by Leonard’s emotional story. Once again, several sought her out, for a hug and a private word.

A student places flags on the Whitcomb School lawn.