Schools Search For New Ways To Address Opioid Use With Students

By Kelly Burch 06/26/18

"Kids don't want to sit in an inactive assembly and be lectured at. They're not interested in hearing about long-term health effects. Their brains simply don't work that way.”

teacher addressing students in classroom

Traditionally drug education in schools has been focused on teaching students to “Just Say No.” However, many of those programs, including the original iteration of the widely-used D.A.R.E. model from the '80s, were found to be ineffective. Now, schools are looking to respond to drug abuse in a more proactive way, against the backdrop of the opioid epidemic. 

"Schools are the ideal setting in order to intervene in a child's life and ensure that they're getting the services and attention that they need," Diana Fishbein, a Penn State University professor of human development and president of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives, told U.S. News and World Report

Today, schools are dealing with issues much bigger than teens smoking pot behind the bleachers. They’re trying to educate teens in a world where deadly synthetic opioids can lead to swift overdose deaths, and the first exposure to drugs can come from the medicine cabinet. 

At the same time, researchers and school administrators are realizing that scare tactics traditionally used in drug education don’t actually address substance abuse among students. 

"The programs that frighten people, that shock, that intimidate—those do not work," said Janet Welsh, an assistant professor at Penn State, who runs the Prevention Center in the College of Health and Human Development.

Kellie Henrichs, a trainer at Prevention First, a nonprofit based in Springfield, Illinois, that trains community organizations to encourage drug-free youth, agrees. 

"Kids don't want to sit in an inactive classroom or an inactive assembly and be lectured at,” she said. “They're not interested in hearing about long-term health effects. Their brains simply don't work that way.”

Instead, educators are looking to challenge students through a new approach. One program that has proven to be effective is Lifeskills Training, which teaches kids how to manage their emotions, resist peer pressure, and understand the immediate effects of drug use. 

Middle school students who take the program are "dealing with their emotions, communicating effectively, being more assertive," said Paulina Kalaj, communications director at National Health Promotion Associates, which sells the Lifeskills Training curriculum. “When you teach kids these skills, they're more likely to engage in healthy behavior across the board.”

In other schools, teachers are asking students to think critically about drug addiction. In the Hampton Township School District in Pennsylvania, Thomas Brophy, a local addiction medicine doctor, explained the science of opioid addiction to students in chemistry class. Then, he presented them with a question: "Is it a choice, or is it a disease?" He followed with a second question: “Does it matter?”

The unique approach is just one way that the district hopes to continue conversations about opioid addiction. 

"We're not going to pretend that Hampton, or the North Hills, doesn't have a problem with this," said Superintendent Michael Loughead. "This is an epidemic, this is a serious problem, and we're trying to hit it head-on."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.