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Beating Ohio's Heroin Epidemic Begins In Kindergarten

Danica Juillerat

The latest Ohio Department of Health figures show more than 2,500 Ohioans died of heroin or fentanyl overdoses in 2014. And those number are rising. Exasperated health and law enforcement officials say they cannot arrest or treat Ohio out of this growing crisis. Many believe one of the most viable ways to stem the epidemic is with comprehensive, consistent education in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Nancy Pommerening spent 32 years at what she calls her first career as an elementary school teacher in the Lakewood district. Since retiring, she's spent the last seven years promoting a drug- education program for Northeast Ohio schools. It’s now in more than 15 Northeast Ohio districts and is being considered by others.

Unlike many programs, Pommerening says this one focuses on what drugs do to a person’s body.                                                                                                 

Stressing Science in Drug Education
“We don’t want to scare kids because we don’t believe that works anymore. We also don’t want to tell kids ‘Don’t take drugs’ because they don’t listen anyway. This allows kids to learn information about how drugs affect the brain. We follow what’s a very popular public-health model, which is called the theory of reasoned action. If we know something’s bad for us, eventually it’s going to change our attitude about that thing, and eventually change behavior.”

The program was designed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, and is taught in science classes. One of the school districts using the program is Austintown in Mahoning County.

Austintown is an early adapter
“Some important things I’ve learned from my NIDA lessons are that movies, ads and magazines make drugs and alcohol seem cool and inviting. But it shocks you to learn what these things actually do to your brain.”

We don't want to scare kids because we don't believe that works anymore.

  A few days before summer break, Austintown fourth- grader Danica Juillerat is reading some of her essay about what the class taught her. A counselor at the intermediate school, Jeanne Senchak, says they started implementing the program three years ago.

Austintown wants to expand the program
“It’s funded through a Mahoning Valley foundation, and we’re trying to educate children on the risks, the scientific risks of using drugs and alcohol, particularly down the road, heroin."

"It is a K-12 program. We’ve implemented it in our K-2 building, and right now we have it in our intermediate building and to some degree in our middle school and high school. And we’re hoping to make it grow and elaborate on the program a little bit.”

Austintown educators
Austintown school counselor Jeanne Senchak and teachers Christine Mazzella and Tammy Chmelik hope the early lessons lay foundation.

As fourth-grader Danica Juillerat’s essay shows, she now knows drugs can be bad for you, and they’re everywhere.

“Some drugs are legal for adults but illegal for individuals under 21. Your occipital lobe controls your vision. And nicotine is actually a legal drug for 21 and over; I didn’t know that.

As for what she's witnessed first hand, "there’s only a few people that drink alcohol and smoke. My dad, he’s a smoker and so is my aunt Christy. We’re all trying to get them both to stop smoking, well because my dad, he’s in assisted living, he has a stroke a few years ago, we feel like that’s what caused it, smoking.”

Taking lessons to heart
TheNIDA program is based on the same method credited with greatly reducing smoking over the past 50 years. Teacher Tammy Chmelik, who taught it to Juillerat and her classmates, is hopeful they retain the lessons as the years go by.

“I think that’s the key; we’re laying the foundation so that when they do leave our doors and as they get older they’ll remember this, the brain lessons, and they’ll keep that in the back of their minds when they’re making choices."

The program could spread
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine believes drug education is currently too spotty, yet he believes making it mandatory isn’t feasible because of local-control issues. Columbus-area State Rep. Andrew Brenner chairs the House Education Committee. He agrees with DeWine.

State Rep. Andrew Brenner
Ohio State Rep. Andrew Brenner chairs the House Education Committee and says giving schools the option of a good drug- awareness program is appropriate.

“Having it available on the state Board of Education’s website or the Department of Education’s website and then having local schools being able to pull those resources in, I think that’s appropriate.

"And I think that means you might have wide-scale adoption of it without not necessarily mandating that they have to use it.” 

More Parents Becoming Addicted
InAustintown, school counselor Jeanne Senchak says more and more students she has contact with are facing drug abuse issues with parents and adult relatives. She hopes the classes these students take will help prevent them from following suit.