OXFORD, Ohio -- As heroin addiction affects more lives around the Tri-State and the nation, some school districts are stepping up their efforts to educate kids about the drug and the dangers of using it.
While most school districts incorporate general drug education into health and social studies classes, a small but growing number of educational institutions is including programming geared more specifically toward opiate abuse.
“I think it is critical that we do, as a community and a district, stay on top of the issue of substance use,” said Amy Macechko, health and wellness coordinator for Talawanda Schools.
In Butler County, heroin use tends to be highest among those ages 25 to 40. Many youths say they’ve been deterred from experimenting with the drug by seeing its effects on parents, older siblings or other relatives, said Leah Merkle, a licensed social worker.
“There’s very little evidence our youth population is using heroin or experimenting with it,” she said.
Merkle is a mental health and AOD (alcohol and other drugs) clinician for Youth First, which operates a teen intervention program in Butler County through Community Behavioral Health and parent company Community First Solutions. Working with the diversion program, she’s seen a recent trend of teens using prescribed drugs, such as painkillers and Xanax, as well as DXM (dextromethorphan), which is commonly found in cough medicine.
While heroin use may be low among youths under 18, it’s not uncommon for abuse of prescribed drugs to lead to opioid addiction. According to a 2014 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of nearly 3,000 patients entering treatment for heroin dependence, 75 percent reported being introduced to opioids through prescription drugs.
Like many districts, Fairfield City Schools target students at specified grade levels with general drug education built into the curriculum.
Programming starts in fifth grade, when students receive 12 weeks of instruction from a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer during social studies classes. The curriculum will remain in the district once school construction and a restructuring of the district are complete, but it will shift to sixth-grade health classes. Drug and alcohol education also is taught in health classes in seventh and ninth grades.
The district also works with the Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Fairfield to promote a drug, alcohol and tobacco-free lifestyle among students. The group works with youth coalitions at the high school level, which help spread the message to underclassmen and in the community.
While the programming primarily focuses on marijuana and alcohol, Pride surveys administered in the district began including prescription drug use four years ago. Based on the self-reporting surveys, opiate abuse in the area is low among youths under 18, but the coalition will continue monitoring the trends.
“We’re watching it,” said Pat VanOflen, director of the Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Fairfield. “Our job is prevention.”
In addition to providing a consistent message throughout the community, coalition members are turning to more graphic, firsthand anecdotes to educate kids about the dangers of using opiates, she said.
Letters written by individuals with a loved one who overdosed were particularly impactful for students during recent youth coalition training, helping them recognize the impact opiate abuse has, not only on users, but on their families.
“The kids started to realize it’s not just the person using that’s in trouble, and it’s not always death that’s caused through it,” VanOflen said.
School districts and partner organizations also hope to teach students about drug and alcohol abuse by educating parents and guardians.
“Young people are less likely to use if they have caring adults in their life who talk to them on a regular basis about the dangers of substance abuse,” Macechko said.
Talawanda district officials this spring worked with the Oxford area Coalition for a Healthy Community to offer Operation Street Smart. Three former undercover narcotics detectives from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office presented at the seminar, which was geared toward adults in the Oxford community who work with youths. The former agents shared up-to-date information on trends, terminology, paraphernalia and physiological effects of narcotics abuse.
Talawanda also offers programming through the coalition that deals with general drug education for parents and youths.
The district takes advantage of Know! tips provided via email by the statewide drug-prevention agency Drug Free Action Alliance. Like Operation Street Smart, the Know! program helps adults keep abreast of drug abuse trends and offers relevant talking points for caregivers and teens.
“The goal of the Know! program really is to empower parents and caregivers of young people to understand the role that they play in drug and alcohol prevention,” Macechko said.
For youth education, Talawanda High School has a student organization known as the Youth Initiative Team, or YIT. The group focuses on building leadership skills and positive character traits and works to reduce substance use among their peers.
YIT members plan substance-free activities, including late-night events after sports games. The events feature free food, activities and video games. The group also takes the lead with drug- and alcohol-use prevention activities and programming around the time of prom and graduation.
The group recently has responded to a push for year-round prevention efforts, organizing Red Ribbon Week initiatives and serving on the Coalition for a Healthy Community leadership team.
Community is a key factor as well. District leaders are helping plan a community forum this fall to discuss the needs of Talawanda Schools and the community in addressing substance abuse, with an emphasis on narcotics. Macechko hopes to see law enforcement officials, elected officials, social services representatives, members of the faith and medical communities, youths and parents take part.
“It’s going to take a community to address this issue,” she said.