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updated: 7/7/2014 4:29 PM

DuPage taking fight against heroin to schools

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To bolster its efforts to warn young people about the dangers of heroin, DuPage County plans to enlist the help of a Hinsdale-based health education center that already has spent years working to address the growing trend of heroin use and death across the Chicago area.

County board members on Tuesday are expected to vote to hire Robert Crown Centers for Health Education to provide a comprehensive opioid prevention education program at a dozen schools.

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"The heroin crisis is real," county board member Gary Grasso said. "This is a problem and we're willing to address it. We're not going to put our head in the sand."

Board members set aside $100,000 to create a public education campaign in response to a record number of heroin deaths last year. There were 46 confirmed heroin-related deaths in DuPage in 2013.

If the Robert Crown contract is approved, the center will be paid $67,746 to provide opioid prevention education during the coming academic year at six middle schools and six high schools throughout DuPage. The schools have not yet been identified.

Depending on how the program goes, the hope is to eventually expand it.

"We're going to craft a private-public partnership where Robert Crown will take the lead and the county will put in the seed money to get the schools involved," Grasso said.

DuPage received inquiries and proposals from dozens of groups, organizations and individuals outlining ways to address the heroin problem.

County officials are recommending board approval of the Robert Crown contract, in part, because the center already has a heroin prevention initiative. That program was developed several years ago in partnership with the Reed Hruby Foundation and uses research from the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

During its second year of classroom testing, Robert Crown's program reached more than 12,000 students in 11 schools.

County officials say the program has proved to be successful. They cite evaluation results showing that 93 percent of the students who went through the program reported understanding how heroin affects the brain and body. Eighty-seven percent of the students said they knew how to protect themselves from heroin use.

"They don't herd everybody into an auditorium, lecture them for three hours and then hope that it gets the job done," county board member Grant Eckhoff said of Robert Crown's program. "They work to train the teachers and the social workers and the kids so the program can perpetuate itself."

Eckhoff said a key component of the program is that it trains students to be leaders and interact with their peers.

"It's not just adults trying to teach kids," he said. "It's kids being able to talk to kids and get help for each other and work together."

If the program is successful in the 12 schools chosen by the county, Eckhoff said he would like to see it offered in every public middle and high school during the 2015-16 academic year.

To make that possible, Eckhoff is planning to ask board Chairman Dan Cronin to devote $200,000 for heroin education in the county's next budget, which takes effect Dec. 1.

Of the requested amount, $157,500 would be used to expand the Robert Crown program to more schools. Each participating school would be required to contribute at least $2,000 for the program's cost.

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