New Drug Education Program Starts At Kindergarten Level In Ohio

By Paul Gaita 04/23/18

Ohio's HOPE program connects with students by using real-life scenarios rather than abstinence tactics.

Teacher standing in front of kindergarten class

A report from the Washington Post profiles a new educational program in the Ohio school system that teaches children from kindergarten through 12th grade about the dangers of opioid use and dependency.

Health and Opioid-Abuse Prevention Education (HOPE) addresses the reality that faces many schoolchildren throughout Ohio—where the rate of drug overdose deaths ranks the second-highest in the nation—by fostering the social and emotional maturity needed to make the right decisions about drug use.

The program has won the praise of teachers and the support of an initiative backed by Governor John Kasich, but it faces an uphill battle in a state that does not allow its education board to establish health education standards.

The HOPE curriculum was developed by Kevin Lorson, a health and physical education professor at Wright State University, who realized that despite requirements set in place by House Bill 367, which in 2014 required every school district in Ohio to include prescription opioid dependency prevention in its health curriculum, very few provided education for grades K-12.

As a survey from the Dayton Daily News found, only 2 out of 13 schools had any sort of complete health education program that included opioid education.

Lorson's curriculum differs from other drug prevention initiatives in that it is based on connecting with students through real-life scenarios rather than abstinence tactics favored by programs like D.A.R.E.

The Post story highlights lessons to grade schoolchildren, including refusing medicine given by anyone but those people they have identified as "trusted adults."

Others focus on role-playing as a means of practicing how to stand up for oneself and refuse offers of drugs. The lessons are taught by teachers, not visiting guests, because they have direct access to their students' behavior, and what might affect them outside the classroom.

The lessons have prompted some emotional responses from students, some of whom deal with parents with dependency issues at home. Some asked if they could still regard a parent as a "good person," even if they were struggling with dependency. Having a teacher who knows the students and could help them through these dilemmas proved crucial, according to Elizabeth Braun, assistant principal at Belpre Elementary School.

"We want our kids to know they are not alone," she said. "We want them to know that we really are a safe place. Your parents didn't make a good decision. You are still going to be okay."

Feedback from teachers who have implemented the HOPE curriculum has been positive, according to the Post. They note that the lessons are appropriate for their students' age and developmental level, and don't feel like just another assignment.

HOPE has also been included on the website for Start Talking!, a campaign supported by Gov. Kasich which sought to provide drug prevention resources to communities.

But getting the program to all 600 school districts in Ohio may need more than word-of-mouth support. Local school boards determine which curriculum is adopted by their schools, and Ohio is the only state in the country that prevents its Board of Education from setting health education standards.

Though legislation to reverse that are in the works, the Post notes that these need to overcome opposition from lawmakers who see it as a threat to the state's sex education curriculum, which favors abstinence.

Until more substantive measures are established, proponents of HOPE will continue to promote its approach toward reaching children early to establish healthy guidelines in regard to drugs.

"I don't know if HOPE is the magic bullet," said Lorson. "But the focus on these key concepts and skills has given folks a place to rally around."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.