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When 'Just Say No' is Not Enough: How Schools Can Teach Kids About Opioids

A generation ago, the battle to teach kids about drug abuse used scare tactics and the “Just Say No” campaign. In this installment of our series, Opioids: Turning the Tide in the Crisis, WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports that experts are now recommending a concentration on social and emotional learning, as well as peer-to-peer programs – some of which are already in-place in Northeast Ohio schools.

Teaching kids about opioid abuse can be difficult. And in Ohio, that’s compounded by the fact that a blanket solution probably won’t work.

“Cleveland is very different than Chillicothe from an Orville or from an Akron.”

That’s Kevin Lorson, an associate professor and physical education program coordinator at Wright State University. He was also a member of the Ohio Joint Study Committee on Drug Use Prevention Education, formed last August by Attorney General Mike Dewine. The panel collected data from school districts around the state and made a list of best practices in the battle against opioid abuse.

“Students were sharing, ‘Please don’t just teach us about the harmful effects of Drug X and Drug Y. We probably already know that. What you need to tell us is the really important information so we can make decisions, or to give us the skills so that if we’re put in a situation where we need to refuse, or we need to communicate a way to make a better choice than using those pills,’ for example. Students are really asking for the tools, not necessarily just the information.”

What used to work?
The best place for that, Lorson says, is in health classes. Back in the 1990s, that’s where drug prevention education was happening according to Bob Dean, who was then the DARE coordinator for Hudson schools.

“That was the expectation. And that expectation came from the community to the schools. What changed in that period of time was essentially when proficiency tests came to town.

"Instead of the classroom teacher being focused on the health and well-being of their students, they’re now being evaluated based on those test scores. This is not an accusation on our schools, because it is out of their control.”

Scare tactics

'Students are really asking for the tools, not necessarily just the information.'

And the methods schools are trying aren’t always effective. Nick Bishop is a sophomore at Stow-Munroe Falls High School, where he’s part of Youth 2 Youth, one of the community-based drug-prevention programs gaining traction in Northeast Ohio districts.

“The year before my freshman year would have been, they had a program where they brought in a state prosecutor and a judge. And it was very fear-tactic-based. And people took it as a joke.”

Bishop says the Youth 2 Youth program has been a success, though, because it does not concentrate on scare tactics. The drug-education panel, in fact, says to avoid such tactics, even when it’s a scary story like the one Travis Bornstein shares about his son.

“When Tyler was in the process of overdosing, the person he was with – instead of calling 911 for help – he took my son to a vacant lot and he dumped him in a field and he left him there to die.”

Bornstein and his family started the non-profit “Breaking Barriers, Hope Is Alive” last year to increase awareness of the opioid epidemic. He also speaks at schools about his story, and he starts with news footage.

“And then I start telling my son’s story: the type of kid he was. And then I show the news clip again where they found a body in a vacant lot. And then I let them know: ‘Tthat’s my kid.’

"So it grabs them pretty quick. It’s a real story. And then I try to get in a dialogue: I give them an opportunity to ask me questions. I tell them, ‘Hey, you can ask me anything you want; you’re not going to offend me.’ And that creates that trust, and we start talking and we have an open conversation.”

Starting in middle school
Bornstein says middle school is a time when students might be most receptive to prevention education. Ben Kellar, a sophomore at Woodridge High School in Peninsula, agrees.

“Middle schoolers usually tend to listen to kids their age or just above their age, rather than adults.”

'It was very fear-tactic-based. And people took it as a joke.'

Kellar is part of Project PANDA, which stands for “Prevent and Neutralize Drug & Alcohol Abuse.” He and his fellow PANDA members recently made 10 PSAs about addiction treatment and prevention, and they’ll be shown at Cinemark theaters this spring.

Making the PSAs, and participating in PANDA are the kinds of peer-to-peer activities the drug-education panel recommends in its report.

Noah Pengel, a sophomore at Revere High School in Richfield, is also in PANDA, and he hopes the PSAs will get the message out that it’s OK to be drug-free.

“When you’re not cool or popular in your school, at least in my school, you’re either labeled a band person or sports person; you get different cliques in your school. And it gets to a point where it’s like, ‘OK, if I say that I’m drug free, these kids are all going to say that I’m a loser.’ It’s just hard to be drug-free in your school.”

But school is where prevention education needs to start, according to Pengel. The new report from the Ohio Joint Study Committee on Drug Use Prevention Education, agrees, and makes a number of suggestions including: teaching opioid-abuse education to Ohio college students studying to become teachers, expanding drug-abuse education across all grades and supporting before- and after-school programs.