All the Rage

A year after Taylor Hootonís suicide, Plano West Senior High is still in denial about steroid abuse

Don keeps scrolling, keeps learning. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 500,000 eighth- and 10th-graders across America are juicing...In 1991, one year after Congress banned steroid use without a prescription, 2.5 percent of 12th-graders had used steroids. In 2002, 4 percent of 12th-graders had...The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy says as many as 11 percent of high-schoolers across America are using steroids...With each passing year, NIDA has found that fewer kids think steroids pose a long-term risk...And 46 percent of the 12th-graders NIDA polled say steroids are "very easy" to get.

Plano West Senior High, an affluent school in a state with easy access to Mexico and its supply of cheap pharmaceutical drugs, is certainly no exception. Students, some of them former steroid users, tell the Dallas Observerthat Plano West had a big problem with steroids before Taylor's death. And it has one still. Students differ on how severe the problem is. One says 80 percent of male athletes and non-athletes are on steroids; another says it's only a handful of athletes and bodybuilders. Still another says one-third of the football team's on it. A fourth person says there are athletes on it--maybe 35--but even more non-athletes. On and on the estimates go, from kids who've either used the drugs themselves, watched kids take them or heard from kids who said they were using. But all of the students agree the school has done little to address the problem.

Dr. Doug Otto, superintendent of the Plano Independent School District, has said there isn't a widespread problem, but he's tried to assuage students' fears nonetheless. At Plano West, steroid use is discussed in health class, but more to the point, in October last year, the school held an assembly on steroids. That night, doctors from Southern Methodist University talked about the drug's side effects. And Mike Long, who took steroids in the '70s, overcame terminal cancer in the '90s and today coaches football at Fossil Ridge in the Keller Independent School District, spoke about what steroids had done to his body. The administration viewed the assembly as a comprehensive response to Taylor Hooton's death, showing the people of Plano it was not going to shy away from this perceived problem.

Before he started using steroids, Taylor (left) was lean and athletic. After several months of steroid use, his entire physique changed (right). So did his attitude.
Before he started using steroids, Taylor (left) was lean and athletic. After several months of steroid use, his entire physique changed (right). So did his attitude.
Don and Gwen Hooton support random steroid testing among high-schoolers.
Mark Graham
Don and Gwen Hooton support random steroid testing among high-schoolers.

But that's exactly what many students say the school has done. The assembly, Don Hooton says, wouldn't have happened had he not organized it. And one former user who spoke to the Observersays after the assembly, a poster was put in the boy's locker room advising kids to stay off steroids. That was the only continuing education he received. Steroid use is still rampant at Plano West, he says.

Students say throughout the year, the attitude among teachers and administrators across Plano ISD was one of denial. Taylor Hooton was already depressed. That's why he committed suicide. Our athletes dedicate themselves to the weight room. That's why they're big. Students say the school in particular and the district in general are interested in maintaining their image: PISD remains a great place to educate your kid. The district doesn't want to deal with what some view as an alarming reality.

Case in point: In December, Otto released a statement saying steroid use across the district was not a problem. Only "two percent of [the student body] in grades 7-12" said they'd used. The numbers came from the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M, which polls students anonymously in each district across the state.

The poll was outdated, for one. The data collected came from 2001. And there was no follow-up question during polling like "What sort of steroids have you taken?" that would have verified a kid's use. (If a student doesn't know the type of steroids he's taken, Dr. Harrison Pope of Harvard says, it's a good indication he's lying about taking them or confused about what steroids are.) Last, the poll did not address Plano West in great detail, where students think the problem is the worst in the district.

"That 2 percent number is a joke," says Billy Ajello, 18, who was Taylor Hooton's best friend. Billy started at catcher his junior and senior year for West's varsity baseball team and graduated in May. "A lot of kids who do steroids won't tell a single [adult]," he says. Yet, surrounded by their peers, the secret often slips out. "I know of so many people who have taken steroids and take them still," he says. Before Taylor's death, students at Plano West talked openly to other students and even bragged about their steroid use, he says. Some brag even now.

Emily Parker, 17, agrees. She was Taylor's girlfriend, and she sometimes rode with him when he bought steroids in the parking lot of fitness centers. She and Taylor hung out with people who took the juice and talked about taking it. She knew of guys on the football team doing it, guys on the baseball team, the basketball team. Regular, non-athlete guys, too. She knew of guys who were too scared to inject themselves, guys who'd have Taylor do the injecting. She once went with Taylor to a house in Plano where vials and syringes were on the kitchen counter, empty. "Creepy," she says. Steroids are still a "huge" problem. For example, some students this year told Emily that, because of Taylor's death, they've quit using. She's glad they've quit, but "not enough, not nearly enough" have come forward. "Like 10," she says. "Out of the hundreds of guys who took steroids."

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