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As Opioid Epidemic Rages, Fight Comes to the Classroom

CECIL COUNTY — With Cecil County averaging more than an overdose a day, the fight against the opioid epidemic is now entering new territory: the classroom.

While drug education has long been a staple of school curriculum, this school year both Cecil College and Cecil County Public Schools will introduce new lessons and new resources specifically aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic. Both entities have also expanded the availability of naloxone — an opioid overdose reversal drug better known by its brand name, Narcan — at their facilities.

These new initiatives in many cases build on longstanding existing partnerships that both entities have with local organizations, including the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office, the Cecil County Health Department, Voices of Hope for Cecil County and the Cecil County Drug Free Communities Coalition. This collaboration among county organizations is essential as CCPS and Cecil College look to reach students in a variety of ways in many different settings, CCPS Superintendent D’Ette Devine said.

“There isn’t one single strategy that you can use,” she said. “You have to come at students over a period of years through a multitude of venues to make the case.”

These local efforts mirror efforts on the state level to teach students across Maryland about the dangers of opioids and other powerful drugs. The Start Talking Maryland Act, which went into effect in July, requires public schools to incorporate information about the dangers of heroin and other opioids into their curriculum as well as have Narcan — and staff trained to use it — in schools. Public colleges and universities are also required to have a heroin and opioid prevention plan that includes education for incoming full-time students and Narcan training for public safety officers.

That law takes effect several months after Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and announced $10 million in new funding to fight the epidemic, which officials believe led to some 2,000 deaths statewide last year.

At the local level, the statistics are equally grim. As of Sept. 1, 299 people had overdosed in Cecil County, 41 of them fatally, an average of more than one heroin-related overdose a day. Ten of those fatal overdoses occurred in August alone, the deadliest month so far this year, according to CCSO statistics.

To turn those number around, information is key, said Sgt. Todd Creek, who supervises CCSO’s school resource officers (SROs) unit. Cigarettes, he noted, have never been outlawed and yet, thanks in a large part to information campaigns about the dangers of smoking, it’s now much less socially acceptable to smoke than it was decades ago.

“Like the sheriff always says, you’re not going to arrest your way out of this heroin problem,” Creek said. “It’s information and prevention, that’s what we have to do.”

That prevention and information campaign will now start with the county’s youngest students thanks to changes that were made to the school system’s drug prevention curriculum over the summer, said Sean Cannon, CCPS director of student services.

CCPS is now entering its third year of using the Botvin LifeSkills Training program in grades three through 10. The program, which is administered by three dedicated teachers who travel to all county schools, focuses on teaching students the skills needed to resist drugs and alcohol; teaching social skills and life lessons alongside factual information about these substances.

Opioids aren’t specifically part of the original LifeSkills curriculum, but in recent years it was becoming clear that it needed to be, Cannon said.

“Before the state passed the law, our LifeSkills teachers were saying that kids in the elementary school level were asking questions about this,” he said. “This was something that when it came up in class they would address it but it’s not something that’s part of the program.”

After working with the health department over the summer, students will now learn about opioids, heroins and prescription drugs in an age-appropriate way as part of LifeSkills. For third graders, this might involve a discussion about prescription pills and how to use them safely while older students will talk about heroin and fentanyl, Cannon said.

 

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