Suburban schools changing how they discuss heroin
Kids today know heroin -- and it's no longer just a word they read in a textbook.
Health teacher Cristy Hefner knows heroin, too.
It's the drug her preteen students at Crone Middle School in Naperville say their neighbors are addicted to. It's the killer, they tell her, of their older siblings' friends.
As recently as five years ago, none of her students said, "'Oh, I know somebody who overdosed on heroin.' It's just crazy to me," Hefner said.
In response to the rise in local heroin use, drug education in the suburbs has started to change.
Scare tactics are giving way to science-based lessons that look at addiction and opioids, including heroin.
"Our kids are so sophisticated today," DuPage County Regional Superintendent Darlene Ruscitti said. "It's a whole different type of learning going on."
Outside the classroom, parents and teachers are increasingly being targeted with educational materials about how to prevent drug abuse -- specifically heroin abuse.
"The schools get a lot of the brunt of this as far as 'You're not doing enough,' but there's so many priorities on schools," says Kris Adzia, project manager for the Robert Crown Centers for Health Education in Hinsdale. "I think it's kind of changing that conversation to, 'How can we best all play a role in making sure we're doing our part?'"
There also is the realization that heroin education in schools has to be implemented over time, in many areas, and consistently -- not just one week in seventh or 10th grade.
"We give them the message here at school -- don't use -- and educate them on the negative consequences, but it's important that they're getting that message in all aspects, all areas of their lives," Hefner said.
'We didn't know'
The growing presence of heroin in DuPage County schools was unveiled to Ruscitti less than two years ago.
"We hosted an open group, brought in lots of different folks, and we learned that we didn't know a lot, as educators, about the impact of heroin," Ruscitti said. "We didn't know how many of our kids got hooked on it, we didn't know the dangerous effects of this drug on our students."
At first, there was some hesitation among school leaders to talk about the problem.
"I think they're opening up more, but it's still something that's a little bit of a barrier, in the fact that they don't want to be the heroin school, or the drug school," Ruscitti said. "We're trying to help aid in the conversation that it's a community issue, and every school has some sort of substance abuse problem."
Lessons on drugs have to be generic enough that kids are educated about the danger of other drugs, too, she said, but also specific enough that they understand heroin is different.
"What kids don't realize is the drug kills," she said. "That is the message. You can die from this. This is not about just smoking a joint and feeling good for the evening. This is very different."
Kids in distress
Earlier this year, Ruscitti's office and the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin hosted a student summit with seniors from 26 high schools. The students were asked to describe drug use by their peers and tell educators what they thought should be done to combat it.
In talking with students, Ruscitti said, the educators unearthed an even bigger but related issue: Many students are coming to school "in distress."
That distress may be caused by problems like bullying or trouble at home, but also by the increasingly high expectations and pressure placed on suburban students today.
"These kids are in some pain," she said. "How do we get them to see that drugs are not an avenue to feel better about yourself, but there are other things that you can do to feel better about yourself?"
Ruscitti said educators need to incorporate social and emotional learning into lesson plans about drugs and heroin. Teaching kids to be "better managers of their emotions," she says, can only help.
Laura Crain, drug-free program coordinator for the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition, agrees. While there have been efforts to educate people about heroin, there's a consensus by county leaders that it's more important to teach kids to have a healthy lifestyle in general.
One reason for that mindset, she said, is weighing the risk of putting time and money into preventing only heroin use when, eventually, "something else will come up in its place."
"Really looking at what root causes are" for drug abuse and helping kids manage their stress, Crain said, are also important factors when it comes to drug education.
Chris Herren, a former NBA player who battled heroin addiction, has addressed many of these issues in his visits to numerous suburban schools in recent years.
He tells his addiction story during assemblies, but he also visits classrooms during the day to talk about how drugs aren't the best way to cope with life's troubles.
While Herren's presentations have been praised for their ability to engage kids, students have said they generally they don't want to be put in an auditorium and talked at about drugs. Instead they want to discuss heroin and other drugs in smaller groups, and with their peers.
That's where the Robert Crown Center is making strides.
A new approach
The projection screen is pulled down in Cristy Hefner's Naperville classroom.
On it, students can see the Robert Crown Center's heroin prevention computer program, centered around an interactive map of the fictional neighborhood of a young man battling a heroin addiction.
"It shows how he was experimenting with a prescription medicine and how he got into heroin," Hefner said. "That's one of the key points that we want to make, how the prescription drugs relate to illegal, harsh drugs."
Click on a location and parts of his story are shared, such as a report card with bad grades at the school and a bank statement full of withdrawals for drug money.
"The software is engaging," Adzia said, adding that she believes it is causing teachers and students to have conversations about the addiction process in a new way. "That's one of our main goals, is getting them ... to think about this whole topic differently."
Robert Crown also provides teachers with PowerPoint presentations, lesson plans and work sheets that they can easily incorporate into their existing curriculum.
"Now when we talk about role playing and how do you say no, we use heroin in some of our examples," Hefner said. "When I have my objectives, there's always something to relate to heroin. It's stressed."
The DuPage County Board agreed to spend $100,000 on a public education campaign next year targeted at heroin prevention. That includes the cost of introducing the Robert Crown program in more schools.
The county began a campaign this year to better inform families about heroin. Currently, one middle school and one high school from each of the six county board districts is using the program.
The Robert Crown program hasn't spread very far beyond DuPage County. But the McHenry County coalition also has a unique, new learning experience its leaders hope to introduce next year: a complete "teen bedroom" kit that schools and community organizations can check out.
The kit, program coordinator Crain said, includes a bed, dresser, books and everything else that makes up a teen bedroom, along with a variety of look-a-like drugs and drug paraphernalia.
Crain said it can be set up for free at parent-teacher conferences or open houses to give parents an idea of what they should keep an eye out for.
"When we do presentations with a parent group, we make sure heroin is on the list of discussion, where before it was pretty much just alcohol and marijuana," she said, adding however, that the coalition sees other drugs as "a much more significant percentage of what kids are reporting."
More than heroin
Lake County Regional Superintendent Roycealee Wood said heroin is now being discussed not only in health classes but also science classes.
In addition, education leaders from all of Chicago's collar counties meet monthly to discuss trends in the schools. Heroin, she said, has been a hot discussion item for a while.
"I would say we're all totally aware of what's going on," she said. "We're just working as quickly as we can to make sure the word is getting out so youngsters are aware of the dangers of using heroin."
In Kane County, more certified alcohol and drug abuse social workers have been hired at schools since the heroin problem flared, said Paige McNulty, assistant regional superintendent. Still, long-standing programs like DARE and Operation Snowball remain the top resources outside the classroom for educating kids about drugs.
While DuPage seems a step ahead in some ways, it has faced its own challenges.
Every school in DuPage County has received a tool kit that includes a zip drive with PowerPoint presentations about heroin and a binder filled with pages of information about the drug that could be printed out and distributed to students or parents.
Ruscitti asked the schools to let her know how many presentations they provided throughout the school year, but she was disappointed to get few responses.
"There is more and more and more on (the teachers') plates, and so our challenge then is to continue to sustain this when so much is being thrown at our schools," she said.
While other leaders get frustrated, Ruscitti said she understands why families don't frequent community forums on heroin, either.
"I have been saying consistently these are parents that live very busy lives. Some are working two jobs," she said. "The first thing on their mind is not going out to an event. But what can we do, then, to get to them? I think that's something we have to do a better job at."
That's why she hopes to start using technology more to get the message across at places where parents will see it -- for example, on the electronic signs at a football game.
"When you talk about whose responsibility it is, it is all of ours," Ruscitti said, "but parents have to have their eyes open."