South Side High School graduate Romeo Morris and North Side High School senior Jazmyn Hernandez still remember an afterschool anti-drug program they took at Memorial Park Middle School.
" ‘Say No to Drugs’ did a good job," Morris said last week during a Journal Gazette roundtable in which five teens from the Mayor’s Youth Engagement Council discussed teen opioid use and drug abuse education in schools.
Brandon Blumenherst, a Homestead High School senior, recalls an anti-drug video his health class viewed freshman year. The overdose victim had fallen asleep on a furnace. His face was scarred beyond recognition.
The five students interviewed said drug use is addressed at school, but there’s no curriculum on specific drugs, including opioids. Morris remembers going over the negative effects of prescription drugs in a high school class, but there was no course that emphasized it.
About 1 percent of Allen County 12th-graders have tried heroin, an opiate, and one-half of 1 percent use it more often, at least monthly, according to a national survey routinely conducted in many schools. Allen County’s top health official, Dr. Deborah McMahan, and Jerri Lerch, executive director for the Drug & Alcohol Consortium of Allen County, say opioid-focused curriculums should be implemented in all schools.
McMahan decried the lack of opioid-focused education at an April 18 Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health board meeting.
"What I’ve learned in public health is ‘pay me now or pay me later,’ " McMahan said. If this problem is not addressed immediately, "you will be paying for that person that entire life."
Those problems include social, health-related, addiction and incarceration. McMahan wants "to take the responsibility off the gym teacher who may be teaching the health classes" and get a standardized, consistent curriculum in the schools.
All county school districts – public and private – say drug abuse education is part of their curriculum. None has an opioid-focused one.
"Our drug prevention education programs cover a variety of substances, including opioid abuse," Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said in an email response. "We are in conversations with local agencies to ensure our staff is educated on the dangers of opioids, in addition to programs to further educate students on this dangerous epidemic."
The student roundtable participants said they aren’t sure a course on the dangers of drugs is worth it, but if there are such courses, schools might start as early as the fifth grade. By the sixth grade, innocence is over, Hernandez said.
"It definitely should be talked about in high school," Blumenhurst said, "because by freshmen year, they are already involved."
Kaleb McCague, a senior at Snider High School, said talking about drugs seems like a taboo topic. Students who come to school high or drunk are often ignored.
Emma Bailey, a Blackhawk Christian High School senior, said drugs and drinking are discussed at chapel services, which she finds effective.
The state leaves it to schools how to teach students the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and drugs.
"Indiana’s health and wellness standards are skill-based, not content-specific, and do not explicitly list drug education standards," Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Hart wrote in an email response. "However, this instruction can be a part of health and wellness education through locally determined curriculum."
East Allen County Schools conducts the national survey every two years. Health teachers discuss alcohol, tobacco and other drug issues in their regular curriculum, said Jeff Studebaker, EACS school safety manager.
"EACS is poised to begin year two of the random drug screening program for students involved in extra and co-curricular activities and those who hold parking permits," Studebaker said in an email response. "The program is non-punitive, designed to prevent student ATOD (alcohol, tobacco and other drug) usage and detect the need for interventions for those struggling with illicit drug issues."
While Studebaker supports an ATOD curriculum, he is wary of an opioid-focused one. Focusing on a certain substance can lend a forbidden-fruit allure and make students want to try it, he said.
At Southwest Allen County Schools, Project Alert, a nationally recognized substance abuse curriculum, is taught in sixth through eighth grades, SACS spokeswoman Stacey Fleming said. In high school, health education classes address the risks associated with drug tolerance, addiction to and withdrawal from many drugs including morphine, but no unit is specifically dedicated to opioid addictions.
There are many evidence-based prevention programs to choose from. Lerch has a white plastic binder in her office with an extensive national index of prevention programs adopted in February by the Indiana Department of Mental Health and Addiction.
The problem has been finding time in the school day and gathering resources to change what Lerch calls "an overwhelming culture of mood alteration."
American culture is now prone to accompany recreation with substances, Lerch said. It starts with sugary, caffeinated drinks that parents often buy young children and adolescents at places like Starbucks, or the soda children see mom or dad gulp to start their day.
Lerch sees cans of grape-flavored Colt 45 marketed to resemble a can of pop. She sees alcohol-laced juice drinks that look like soft-pouch juice drinks for youth. She sees hyper-caffeinated drinks like Red Bull purchased by all ages.
She has heard about middle school and high school kids getting together for "pharm" or "Skittles parties," in which they raid grandma and grandpa’s medicine cabinets and those of parents and neighbors, throw all the prescription meds in a bowl, take a scoop, swish it down with alcohol available too often at home and see what happens.
New evidence on brain development makes the culture even scarier. Full development of the front of the brain, where judgment takes place, typically isn’t reached until age 25, Lerch said.
Then there are the athletes who, when injured, are placed on prescriptions and become at risk.
"There are roughly 2 million injuries each year that require visits to the emergency room," McMahan said. "If you give an opiate to a young athlete who is secretly suffering from anxiety or depression or some mixture of that, a genetic predisposition to addiction, you start a medication to an opioid, they can become addicted."
The average age for a medical problem from anxiety and depression starts at 14.
"You have the kids who are just so unhappy. For a lot of those kids, this underlying anxiety and depression is not diagnosed," McMahan said, and once an opioid painkiller is used a few times, a child is hooked. "Then it’s not really your choice. It’s an addiction."
Dr. David Conner, an orthopedic sports surgeon with SportONE, a division of Orthopedics Northeast, said the high school athletes he encounters are not relying on opioids, and abuse of the drugs is rare.
Following an operation, an athlete might be prescribed Norco or Percocet, both of which contain opioids, but over-the-counter drugs are pursued, he said.
"If you use the narcotics long enough, your body has the potential to build up a tolerance to it," Conner said. "Opioids are a tool to allow patients to get through rehab quicker and rehab better. "
‘Shock and awe’
Students said hanging posters in hallways warning against drugs aren’t effective. But McCague said one of the most powerful ways to address the subject is visually. He recalled when he saw a wrecked car placed purposely at the corner of Vance Avenue and Reed Road in an effort to deter drinking, texting, drugging and driving. That intersection is close to Snider High School, Lane Middle School and Glenwood Elementary School.
McCague described it as "a shock and awe that goes to the extreme to show why drinking and driving is dangerous. Different scenarios and presentations could be done at schools to show why it’s (prescription drugs) negative and so kids could see the side effects."