East Hampton Schools Wage War on Drugs

During a 48-hour period in June, roughly 22 people suffered opioid overdoses in Suffolk County, a figure that gives proof to a recent statement by Legislator Sarah Anker, a member of the county’s opiate advisory panel, who said, “Suffolk County is struggling with an overwhelming opiate epidemic of unprecedented proportions.” 

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among the youngest group of users, those from 15 to 24, drug poisoning deaths involving heroin across the nation increased while all other age groups held steady or declined.

Which means that school districts on the South Fork are either on high alert, or will be, in stepping up efforts to deal with the crisis during 2018.

Schools between Southampton and Montauk have recently hosted several presentations for parents and middle and high school students by local police officers and organizations such as the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. As reported here recently, it is not only heroin and painkillers that middle schoolers are apparently arently outsmarting their teachers with, but electronic devices such as vape pens, Juuls, and e-cigarettes, often laced with fentanyl, a synthetic drug far more powerful than heroin, and one that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone sees as the possible public enemy number one.

To prepare for the worst, principals in all schools here reported that staff members have received training in administering naloxone, or Narcan, which counteracts opiates, whether from heroin or prescription painkillers, by blocking and even reversing its deadly effects. 

In-school classes and a group such as Sources of Strength, an initiative at East Hampton High School, have taken on major significance as they train students to identify and help peers who seem to be at risk or already in the grip of drug abuse.

Nevertheless, a largely outdated drug-abstinence campaign is still used in schools around the East End. Called Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, it was developed in the 1980s by police and educators in Los Angeles, and called for officers to warn students about the consequences of alcohol and drug use. It has been shown to be ineffective and sometimes counterproductive, however, with published studies reporting that teens who participated in DARE or similar programs actually had a higher likelihood of drinking or smoking than students who had not undergone the educational initiative.

Such reports bring to mind the 1980s campaign launched by the then-first lady, Nancy Reagan, who walked into the crack-cocaine scourge with a message: “Just Say No.” At the time, educators had few tools to fight what quickly turned into an epidemic, and her refrain became a mantra in support of drug-abuse prevention. Researchers, however, found the program largely ineffective. 

According to Scientific American magazine, “Purely educational programs that involve minimal or no direct social interaction with other students are usually ineffective. Merely telling participants to ‘just say no’ to drugs is unlikely to produce lasting effects because many may lack the needed interpersonal skills. Programs led exclusively by adults, with little or no involvement of students as peer leaders — another common feature of DARE — seem relatively unsuccessful, again probably because students get little practice saying no to other kids.”

Debra Winter, the superintendent of the Springs School, vows to teach students resiliency and conflict resolution. “One program I want to bring back is called Facing History, even just for seventh and eighth graders,” she said. “It teaches kids how bills are passed in government and how important it is to have a voice in order to enact change. There’s a lack of hope among kids today and we need to bring it back.”

Ms. Winter believes young people must learn their value in society if they are to turn away from substance abuse. Lessons on self-worth are as important as English and mathematics, she said, “but most educators are too afraid to touch the subject.”

Around Suffolk County, an increasing number of communities are forming coalitions to address the opioid epidemic. Long Island church congregations, associations, and neighborhoods together with the Long Island Recovery Association have created the Opioid Action Team and already organized an annual meeting of eight school districts, which included East Hampton. In addition, the one-day “student summit” exposed students and their parents to guest speakers, role-playing exercises, and training in the use of Narcan. 

It is clear that schools and communities are looking beyond outdated campaigns, which spread fear and ignorance instead of information and vital tools.

In September, in Sayville,  for example, political leaders, elected officials, residents, and drug counselors commemorated International Overdose Awareness Day. A Fed Up and Maxed Out Rally for a Federal Response to the Opioid Epidemic, which they sponsored, featured impassioned speeches, poetry readings, and live music with the goal of raising awareness to the pain and death caused by the epidemic, while discussing and generating realistic, lasting solutions.

The Sachem School District has piloted a peer-to-peer youth program in which high school students offer substance prevention lessons to their middle school counterparts. 

President Trump might be promising a “massive advertising campaign” as part of his administration’s response to the prevalent drug crisis, but school districts here are nevertheless taking their own steps to do more in 2018 to help curb the toxic haze hanging over society.