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Upcoming exhibit at Park High School reveals what kids may hide

The Top Secret Project, which stops at Park High School April 26, stages a reproduction of a teen’s room, where 150 objects provide clues that the presumptive occupant could be involved in risky behavior such as drugs, drinking, bullying, cutting or anorexia. The educational traveling exhibit is organized by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. (Submitted photo).

There may be more alarming things in a teenager's bedroom than piles of dirty socks or petrified pizza crusts.

Think dental floss, apples and stuffed animals.

Floss can be used to tie baggies containing drugs. An apple can be repurposed as a pipe to smoke marijuana. Stuffed animals can be used to hide drugs or other contraband.

But organizers of the The Top Secret Project don't want parents to take their word for it. They'd rather they see for themselves, when their traveling exhibit stops April 26 at Park High School.

Parents will have the chance to walk through a space that is staged to look like a teenager's bedroom, with dresser, laptop and pillows. This one-room haunted house contains 150 objects — most of them ordinary objects. But their presence could indicate that the room's occupant is drinking, using drugs, being bullied, is depressed or even contemplating suicide.

The program, which is for adults only, was created by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in collaboration with 11 other organizations. They were inspired by a similar program in Florida called Hiding in Plain Sight.

The Top Secret Project debuted last fall at Wayzata Central Middle School and has traveled to other Minnesota schools.

The idea is to show parents what they may be missing, said Cendee Palmer, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's national outreach manager for adult and youth services.

"It's kind of a show and tell," Palmer said. "They kind of walk around and peek at it. And we give them a packet of information. We develop a website that they can access."

Afterward, visitors can attend a presentation in the Park auditorium where experts will reveal the meaning behind the clues in the room.

Some signs are more obvious than others, such as pot leaf decals on the dresser or a poster of meth kingpin Walter White from the AMC series "Breaking Bad." But others could be right under a visitor's nose, Palmer said.

"For instance, what if they were leaving a lot of fruit in their room, you would think nothing of it. If you took a closer look at the apple, if there were holes in it and a burn on it, they could be using is as a pipe to smoke marijuana," she said.

And those Gummy Bears? If they look big, like a tick about to pop, it could be because they've been soaked in vodka to provide a chewy high.

"We put a lot more than there would ever be in any teen's room," Palmer said. "But we're doing it to prove a point."

Park High School connected to the project through the Youth Service Bureau.

"In the Twin Cities area, we've noticed there are students with risky behaviors and mental health needs," Assistant Principal Jonathan Hunt said. "I think it's beneficial for the school district to educate parents on what to look for and to share with others. Whether it's suicide, alcohol, bullying or drugs, they have this cache of information."

Visitors must be over 18 years old.

"It's going to be open to anyone," Hunt said. "District 833 parents are welcome to come regardless of what school they're from."

If you go:

"Top Secret" comes to Park High School April 26. Tours run from 6:15-7 p.m., with a 90-minute presentation following from 7-8:30 p.m. Admission is free but is for adults only. For more information, contact Jonathan Hunt, Park High School assistant principal, at 651-425-3708 or jhunt02@sowashco.org.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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