New York State School Boards Association

Schools confront opioid abuse epidemic through education and partnerships

by Merri Rosenberg

On Board Online • June 12, 2017

By Merri Rosenberg
Special Correspondent

Slow, shallow breathing and a weak pulse.

A bluish tint in lips, skin and nails.

Small pupils.

Roxbury Superintendent Tom O'Brien knows what a heroin overdose looks like. He's an emergency medical technician in his Delaware County community, and sometimes he recognizes the faces of his patients as former students.

"I'm not losing my kids at school," said O'Brien. "I'm losing them after graduation, when they're 18 to 25."

The same is true in many school districts across the state.

"There's been a fair number of overdoses, which is very disturbing," said George Stone, superintendent in Westchester County's Lakeland school district. "These are kids you watch grow up."

The statistics are sobering. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heroin use more than doubled among young adults ages 18-25 in the past decade. The opioid overdose rate has tripled since 2000. More than six in 10 drug overdose deaths were linked to opioid use in 2014.

In 2014, there were more than 118,000 admissions into New York State-certified treatment programs for heroin and prescription opioid abuse, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The largest increase in opioid admissions from 2009 to 2014 was in patients ages 18 to 34.

Although most of the drug-related deaths occur after students have graduated, these losses still hit school communities hard. Prevention has gained urgency as schools and their communities absorb the impact of these tragedies.

"Schools are the biggest and best opportunity to address these problems," according to Cortney Lovell, a recovery coach and addictions counselor, as well as founder and director of WRise, a consulting firm based in the Albany area. After all, she notes, substance abuse often starts in middle school or high school.

Gov. Cuomo launched a New York State Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction in 2014, followed by a Statewide Heroin Task Force in 2015, to combat the opioid abuse epidemic.

A 2015 law allows schools to have a drug on site, naloxone, to handle overdoses. There is widespread agreement that prevention must improve, and that schools need to be part of the effort.

"Emphasis has been shifted to community coalitions, with school-based programs that also push out into larger communities," said Steve Rabinowitz, a consultant who recently retired from the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

In Lakeland, for example, Stone said the district has worked with the town supervisors in Yorktown and Cortlandt, as well as community organizations and law enforcement, to present panels and workshops about opioid abuse prevention.

"We want to put more information into the hands of students and parents," said Stone. "We're constantly talking about it. In large part because of the opioid epidemic, we're moving DARE from fifth grade to eighth grade to do more specific targeting."

The state health education curriculum now requires information about heroin and opioids as part of the overall prevention strategy.

For many schools, fulfilling that mandate and other prevention efforts involves partnerships with community agencies and bringing experts into the classroom and assemblies.

"We've had a strategic partnership with 11 districts, where we send prevention educators into kindergarten through high school," said Justin Hamm, of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council (ADAC) of Delaware County. "We do tailor-made presentations that are able to address specific needs."

The organization also holds community forums and panels, often including someone in recovery, as well as an addiction specialist.

In the Hudson Valley, a not-for-profit in Tarrytown called Student Assistance Services provides counselors and programs for school districts in the area of substance abuse. Executive Director Ellen Morehouse said her counselors are "taking more time to explain" about opioids and other substances. "Kids don't know the most basic information" about addiction and overdoses, she said.

One key message: beware of painkillers. About 45 percent of people who use heroin are also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers, according to the CDC. Some started with prescriptions for narcotics to deaden pain after an athletic or other injury. Others took prescription narcotics they find in parents' or grandparents' medicine cabinets for recreational reasons, then got hooked.

In Columbia County, several graduates of Ichabod Crane High School have died of overdoses. Three years ago the school launched its own drug task force, which has provided educational forums for the community and students about substance abuse, addiction and recovery.

"We're looking at recovery and losing the stigma of addiction," said Principal Craig Shull. "It's about how can we support those with the disease, and looking to help. We're educating like crazy to make sure [opioid abuse] isn't happening. We're extra-aware and extra-vigilant. It's impacting everybody, so the district is trying hard to educate our students."

The high school has trained several students to be "youth ambassadors and leaders," said Shull, to teach their peers. For example, during one week these students did activities in physical education classes to promote wellness.

"It's a whole-building approach," said Shull.

But nothing is a silver bullet. Officials in Westchester's Hendrick Hudson school district have been alarmed about a number of former students who have died from overdoses. Like other districts, Hendrick Hudson has tapped local experts and held community forums. Superintendent Joseph E. Hochreister said what frustrates him most is the "challenge of getting families to come to these events." He said district officials are "trying to get the word out and figure out ways of engagement."

Educators say the stakes are too high to slack off on the message.

"We'll continue to keep trying," said Shull. "We have to keep going."

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