This fall, students at a dozen schools in DuPage County will learn about the dangers of heroin through a program created by the Robert Crown Centers for Health Education.
DuPage County Board members Tuesday unanimously approved a nearly $68,000 contract with Robert Crown to provide the opioid prevention education.
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The money to pay for the program is coming from the $100,000 the board set aside to create a public education campaign in response to the county's record number of heroin deaths last year.
Robert Crown officials say their program is flexible and can be integrated into classrooms through health courses.
They will train teachers at the 12 yet-to-be-identified schools -- including one middle school and one high school from each county board district -- about how to teach the online lessons and lead activities in the classroom.
"This has been something we've been working on for a while, so we're feeling like we're really ready to get to that next step. We're excited," said Robert Crown Center Project Manager Kris Adzia. "The main idea behind the program is teaching the science behind the impact of drugs on the brain and the body, as well as social and emotional learning skills."
The program features interactive software that is based on the true story of a recovering addict, Adzia said.
It includes blog posts, text messages, report cards, bank statements and other items that will give students an idea of the progression of an addiction over the course of a school year.
Officials say the program is built on research Robert Crown did in 2011 that showed there were many gaps in knowledge among students about addiction and what heroin is.
"A lot of students had heard things about, 'Don't do drugs because they're bad for you.' That's kind of the conversation that was happening, but not 'Why? What actually happens in your brain and body to make them dangerous and addictive?' That's kind of the pieces we wanted to address, as well as the decision making skills piece," Adzia said.
Robert Crown Chief Executive Officer R.J. McMahon said students ideally will engage their parents with the software, which they will have access to for a semester.
"We want to hit them before the topic is presented to them and really arm them with the information and arm them with the science behind it, and not just 'say no,' but really understand the impact it can make," he said.
Board member Grant Eckhoff commended the board for allowing DuPage to be a leader in dealing with the heroin problem.
"We're not the people in the courtroom, we're not the people on the streets dealing with this, but we're the people who hold the purse strings and when a problem is presented to us and when we can react quickly and do a good job for the public, I think that's something that we each should be proud of," he said.
County officials estimate it may cost an additional $200,000 to expand the program to the remaining schools in the county over the next two fiscal years.
"We're taking it very seriously and I'm very impressed how everyone got behind this," said board member Gary Grasso.
"There is an end process in which we wish to move the expenditures over to the school boards. It shouldn't be a big line item to them once we get the educational system going and so this will not be envisioned as a long-term commitment by this county's budget, but we will be continuing to take a lead."