Kids and drugs – are we doing enough?

 

Yesterday the Windsor Board of Education (BoE) Curriculum Committee met.  During this meeting I once again raised the issue of whether or not we are addressing substance abuse prevention in 11th and 12th grade.  I asked this question in response to the finding that our curriculum review schedule was missing 11th and 12th grade health.

Unfortunately, the BoE President, Cristina Santos, attempted to block the conversation, stating, “we spent enough time on this issue last year.”  I would argue that last year there was not a public outcry for addressing the heroin epidemic.  Last year our state did not have hundreds overdosing within the first two months of the year, with many teens dying as a result of opioid misuse.  In our town alone, we have lost young people to opioid overdose death in the past 12 months.

Here is my position on the topic, you decide as to whether or not we should be having the conversation, or at least why someone would think it’s a bad idea:

Teen alcohol and other drug use is increasing at an alarming rate across Connecticut.  It seems like every day there is another obituary in my news feed for a young person who has lost their life to addiction. In my very own hometown I have lost 9 peers as a result of substance misuse in the past 11 years.

Despite the growing rate of drug abuse and dependence amongst young people, Connecticut school districts continue to provide inadequate instruction on substance abuse prevention – ignoring state laws (G.S. 10-19) that require students receive this life-saving information.

Roughly 1 out of 10 Connecticut high school students engage in illicit drug use on a regular basis, ranging from marijuana to crack cocaine and heroin (National Survey on Drug Use and Health).  While, 27.1% of high schools students were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property (Connecticut School Health Survey).  Substance use during adolescence has been strongly associated with the incidence of life-long chronic dependence.

As a person who survived addiction, I have asked my friends, “why did you leave me at a time in my life that I needed you the most?” Their response, “I was scared and I didn’t know how to help.”  It is unacceptable that our young people do not have the information that they need to offer guidance as someone they love risks incarceration, institutionalization, or death.

Over the past 5 years I have asked hundreds of young people who are in recovery across the state of Connecticut, “what can we do to improve outcomes in the area of behavioral health?” and the most frequent suggestion has been to teach about mental health and substance abuse in high school.

While looking into this recommendation I have found that the majority of school districts across Connecticut are out of compliance with Connecticut General Statute Sec. 10-19, which requires that every student be taught the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to understand and avoid the effects of alcohol and other drugs.  In addition, this statute mandates that every local and regional board of education attest annually to the Commissioner of Education that all students have received this instruction through a planned, ongoing, and systematic program.

To assist districts, the State of Connecticut Department of Education (SDE), not surprisingly, has developed a highly sophisticated set of standards for covering the topic of alcohol and drug use through district level health curriculum.  The SDE has outlined these standards in the Healthy and Balanced Living Curriculum Framework, which is aligned with the National Health Education Standards set by the Federal Government.

This means that Physical Education (P.E.) teachers are responsible for covering the topic in gym class or other health related courses such as weight training.  While we can see that there is multilevel alignment, an oversight has been made.

How so?  Well, students are only required to take 1.5 credits of P.E., meaning that during their senior year students often opt out of P.E. to take courses that are of greater interest to them.  This is where my concern heightens.

Adolescence is a critically important time for students as they prepare to take on adult responsibilities and consequences – yet our students are potentially not receiving the information that they need to make informed decisions about substance use.  All the while the opportunity to use drugs doubles and first time drug use quadruples between freshmen and senior year (Swedsen, J., et al., Archives of General Psychiatry).

I cannot even begin to imagine how many futures can be saved by providing the information they are entitled to receive while going through school.

Yesterday, I brought this specific this topic up for consideration during the curriculum committee meeting, and Mrs. Santos’ response was that “all districts” are out of compliance.  That is a false statement.  Our district was out of compliance with the law until last year when I raised the issue.  This year I was simply following up because there was a discrepancy in the curriculum review schedule that was presented yesterday.

I believe that it is completely without our prevue as a Board of Education to discuss matters that are impacting our student body, and it would be an appropriate conversation to begin within the curriculum committee given that there is a law that requires that we include substance use in our curriculum.  Specifically, G.S. 10-19 includes, “The content and scheduling of instruction [on substance use] shall be within the discretion of the local or regional board of education.”

To be clear, I asked yesterday for a conversation – I asked for us to take a look at how substance use education is embedded into the curriculum from kindergarten through grade 12.  I asked for assurance that this information was being delivered in a developmentally appropriate way through scaffolding.  This is not to micromanage the teachers, this is to ensure that our children are receiving the lifesaving information that we are required, by law, to teach.  Why am I being blocked?

QUICK FACTS

1 out of 10 high school students have used an illicit drug ranging from marijuana to crack cocaine and heroin (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). National Surveys on Drug Use and Health: Model-Based Estimated Totals, NSDUH Series H-43, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4703. Table C.8, C.21, C.22. Rockville, MD).

The opportunity to use drugs doubles and first time drug use quadruples between freshman year of high school and senior year (Swedsen, J., et al., Archives of General Psychiatry).

There is an upward trend in the non-medical use of prescription opioids, including Oxytocin and Percocet, between 8th and 12th Grade (Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Miech, R. A., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2016). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2015: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan).

27.1% of high schools students were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property (Connecticut Department of Public Health. (2013) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – Connecticut: Components of the Connecticut School Health Survey).

5% of 12-17 year olds in Connecticut reported recreational use of prescription pain relievers (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). National Surveys on Drug Use and Health: Model-Based Estimated Totals, NSDUH Series H-43, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4703. Table C.8, C.21, C.22. Rockville, MD).

By the age of 25, two out of three have used an illicit drug ranging from marijuana to crack cocaine and heroin (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). National Surveys on Drug Use and Health: Model-Based Estimated Totals, NSDUH Series H-43, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4703. Table C.8, C.21, C.22. Rockville, MD).

Despite Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) being deemed a failed prevention program through a 20 year longitudinal study and independent two meta-analysis, DARE continues to be implemented throughout districts (Join Together (2007). Prevention Education in America’s Schools: Findings and recommendations from a survey of educators)

It has been found that school districts should not be the principal providers of general prevention education, but should partner with other social institutions and parents to develop and implement comprehensive community prevention strategies (Ashlery, R. S. et. al. (1998). Drug Abuse Prevention Through Family Interventions. IDA Research Monograph 177.)

Suggested topics for a harm reduction approach to drug abuse prevention:

  • History of human drug consumption
  • Commonly taken drugs and their effects
  • Purposes for which drugs are consumed
    • Drugs as a response to adolescent angst
    • Alternatives to drug consumption
  • Hazards of any drug consumption and means of risk-reduction, including
    • Self-assessment of risk
    • Personal rules related to drug taking behavior
  • Drug dependence
    • Its extent, nature, impact, and treatment.

(Nickolson, T. et. al. (2013). Focusing on abuse, not use, in drug education)

 

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