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Fort Smith teachers discuss drug education amid opioid abuse

July 30, 2018

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — When it comes to drug education in Fort Smith Public Schools, prescription opioids are a complex substance to talk about.

Though easily abused, opioid painkiller prescriptions are usually written as medical relief for pain. This dynamic complicates the “what’s helpful, what’s harmful” dichotomy of substances used in the drug education curriculum in Fort Smith Public Schools, the Southwest Times Record reported.

“Those conversations become more sophisticated and become more personalized with kids as their experiences with observations, with things going on with the family (come up),” said Michael Farrell, supervisor of student services at Fort Smith Public Schools.

Low perceived risk of drug use was the highest risk factor in 2016 for 12th-grade students in Fort Smith Public Schools and in Arkansas. It was also a top three risk factor that year in 10th, eighth and sixth grades in Fort Smith Public Schools, according to the Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment Survey.

In 2015, an estimated 13.3 percent of youth in Sebastian County used illicit drugs — 3 percent higher than the statewide rate that year, according to the Needs Assessment Survey for that year. In the latest available years for data, Sebastian County had some of the highest numbers in Arkansas for several opioid-related issues.

In 2013-14, an estimated 9.7 percent of Arkansans ages 18-25 used pain relievers non-medically, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

“What I’ve heard students talk about and teachers talk about with kids in the classroom is that low-perceived risk — ‘It’s really not that big a deal, it’s from a doctor,’” said Cherri Byford, secondary school counselor coordinator at Fort Smith Public Schools.

The opioid conversation reaches into students’ home lives as well. Some of the younger students in Fort Smith Public Schools talk about their parents or older siblings abusing opioids, said Karen Williamson, elementary school counselor coordinator at Fort Smith Public Schools.

“They’ll talk about what’s going on with them, not necessarily that they think it’s a bad thing, because they don’t. I have to have that conversation with them, too, because they’re not their parents’ keepers. They’re not the ones who should go home and say, ‘Mom and Dad, you can’t do this. You can’t use that,’” she said.

As opposed to abusing the drugs, parents should ideally be the ones teaching their children about the dangers of opioids, Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck said.

“It’s not fair for the school system to be the catch-all to educate children on every social justice or social crisis,” he said. “They need to be a component, but it’s got to start at the home, too, by saying, ‘Kids, you see these pills? This is for my back pain. This is not good. See these pills here? You’re going to come in the car with me, and we’re going to go down to the sheriff’s department and we’re going to turn these in because we don’t need them anymore, and because they’re so dangerous for people to get ahold of that we can create crime by allowing people to know that we have a stored amount of opioids that aren’t being used, and we have to turn them in to prevent people from stealing from us and getting hooked.’”

Instead of telling elementary students what to say to their parents, teachers instead talk to them about making good decisions with the drugs themselves, Williamson said. Some of these talking points include the purpose of opioid painkillers, how to use them and how to follow directions for their use, she said.

As for older students, the conversation becomes more practical, Byford said. She said this is because of the low-perceived risk of drug use.

“You have to start with the facts and say, ‘You’re not in control of biology. You can’t tell yourself to stop breathing. This is what drugs do to you that you have no control over. How much control do you want to have in your life?’” she said. “Those conversations are helpful with adolescents, with their development at that point.”

Hollenbeck said he has considered reaching out to public school systems in Sebastian County about the possibility of using the Opioid Task Force to assist in drug education. The Opioid Task Force, which first met in February and recently held the Sebastian County Opioid Summit, is comprised of pharmaceutical, legislative, medical and law enforcement officials with the goal of decreasing opioid deaths in the county.

In the meantime, teachers will continue to educate students about what’s helpful and what’s harmful about opioids, Farrell said.

“Those are the conversations you have with any topic — whether you’re talking about chemistry, whether you’re talking about history, whether you’re talking about art and perception,” Farrell said. “The conversations that take place between an instructor and a student — that’s where the guidance develops.”

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Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/

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