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Fighting the Opiod Epidemic in Public Schools

June 22, 2017

The opiod epidemic has received widespread publicity and affected thousands of families from all strata of society across the entire country. Unlike drugs like heroin and marijuana, opioids are typically highly addictive prescription drugs that are abused by ingesting them in a fashion that leads to a higher probability of overdose.

Two articles earlier this week talked about ways public education is addressing this problem. A NYTimes article on Tuesday by Lisa Foderaro described a “scared straight” assembly being conducted by Frank Whitelaw, a county coroner in Essex County NY. Located in the Adirondacks, Essex County schools serve students raised in the rural and isolated  towns in that region, towns that have been grappling with the problem of opioids among young adults. After the death of a Marine named Justin Ropke, who became addicted to heroin after sustaining injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Whitelaw wrote an op ed article for the local paper

….imploring school officials to risk scaring students in the hope of saving a life. “Are you so afraid to expose students to the graphic and harsh reality in our community that you simply turn a cold shoulder to it and hope for the best?” he wrote.

Several administrators in the region invited Mr. Whitelaw to their schools to give a presentation on opioids, a presentation that featured graphic scenes associated with the deadly use of fentanyl. The efficacy of these assemblies was not readily available… but if the track record of “scared straight” is any indicator the impact is likely short lived, the emotional impact notwithstanding.

Easy Liens’ US News and World Report article on Wednesday described the success of “recovery schools” designed to provide wraparound services to teenagers who are addicted to drugs of various kinds, drugs that in this day and age tend to begin with painkillers and end with narcotics. The article talked mainly about the “high cost” of providing these services…  a cost that is only high if you compare it to traditional public school:

But funding recovery schools is far from simple. Other states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where legislation has passed to build public recovery schools, haven’t seen any results because of funding issues. The cost per pupil at recovery schools ranges from $16,000 and $18,000 per year per student, a steep increase from an average of about $11,400 at traditional public high schools. Recovery schools have fewer students, but they require more resources.

This roughly $6,000 differential pales in comparison to the cost of other treatment centers or prison, which is where far too many addicts end up… and given the data reported in the article is a far more effective intervention than a single school assembly.

But while “recovery schools” are successful, they ARE ex post facto, which leads to the ultimate question, which is what steps can schools take to prevent addiction from becoming more widespread. My idealistic notion is that schools should focus less on external rewards and punishments and more on developing self-awareness. When schools spend as much time developing social and emotional well-being as they do on preparing for standardized testing our addiction problems will diminish considerably.

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