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Collaboration, curricula as weapons against opioid abuse

  • Science of addiction—The human body can handle only so much. Above, graphics from the Operation Prevention program reveal the adverse health effects from opioid addiction.
  • Science of addiction—The human body can handle only so much. Above, graphics from the Operation Prevention program reveal the adverse health effects from opioid addiction.

K12 district leaders are collaborating with entire communities and using new curricula to help combat the opioid crisis sweeping the nation.

Middle school students at Norwin School District in Pennsylvania are among the first to pilot a new curriculum that offers a science-based approach to how drugs affect the brain, says Superintendent William Kerr. The district sought help after five graduates from the classes of 2009 through 2013 died from drug overdoses, Kerr says.

The curriculum—Operation Prevention, developed by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and Discovery Education—in part explains the role of neurotransmitters in the brain and how opioids adversely affect the nervous, respiratory and digestive systems.

For example, students learn that coma, drowsiness and unconsciousness are some potential short-term effects. Insomnia, decreased liver function and muscle and bone pain are some long-term effects.

The program is different from others in that it focuses on the science of addiction, and how drugs adversely affect a young brain. “Heroin hijacks the brain,” Kerr says. “People become trapped in a toxic environment and they cannot find a way out.”

A community comes together

In Massachusetts, Plymouth Public Schools is involved in a community-wide effort to fight the opioid epidemic, says Chris Campbell, the district’s assistant superintendent of administration and instruction.

The effort involves a coalition of community leaders coordinated by the CEO of local Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. Community programs include Drug Story Theater, where recovering drug addicts act out their life experiences to students and community members.

Another program is Project Outreach, where, in the event of an overdose, local police send a clinician from a treatment center to the victim’s house, informing the family that a bed is available for them.

In addition, Campbell can check if a district student resides in a home where an overdose occurred and inform the child’s teacher. “If you have a student who is acting out and you’re not aware their father or mother just OD’d the night before, you’re going to react differently,” he says.

Elementary students—those in grades 4 and 5—start to learn the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and how they affect the brain. And, like other districts, Narcan is available at schools to counteract a potential overdose.

To start an effective community program, Campbell suggests others follow the same plan his district did:

  • Find someone to champion the cause and gather people together.
  • Reach out to all sectors of a community, from faith-based groups, to mental health, to hospitals.
  • Talk to government officials to help influence policy.
  • Work with the police to help victims find help, not necessarily simply arrest them.

Angela Pascopella is managing editor.