The Fix: Prevention & Education

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) The state says part of "The Fix" to the opioid crisis in Vermont is education -- schools doing their part to keep kids off drugs.

Hunt Middle School in Burlington has a curriculum that offers a lot to its students -- reading, writing, arithmetic, opioids?

"We just talk about the bad things drugs can do to you," said Annemiek Kashindi, an 8th grader at Hunt.

Add drug prevention and education to the list for students like Kashindi.

Reporter Darren Perron: Do drugs scare you?
Annemiek Kashindi: Yeah.
Reporter Darren Perron: Why?
Annemiek Kashindi: I've seen what they can do to people. I just don't want it to happen to me.

And neither does the school. That's why every 6th, 7th and 8th grader here gets six weeks of drug education before heading to high school.

"These drugs are dangerous and will have long-term or short-term addiction effects," said Deborah Anger. She's been teaching kids about the dangers of drugs for 26 years here. But boy, has the curriculum changed. "It's scary to see what kids are saying these days about what they see, what they experience in Burlington."

Tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana are still addressed in class as always.
But now vaping, e-cigs, JUULing, and opioids are too.

"As adults, we are a few steps behind kids. They are teaching us what's out on the street," said Mattie Scheidt, the school's principal. For her, it's a no-brainer.

Reporter Darren Perron: Is 6th 7th 8th grade too young to start talking about opioids?
Mattie Scheidt: I don't believe it is. I think middle school is a time when kids are starting to experiment.

Each year the state surveys kids. And last year -- 2 percent of high schoolers admitted trying heroin. Eight percent misused prescription painkillers. That percentage doubles with LGBT kids. And these are just the students who admitted to using.

Kids are starting young, and when they do that's where Sunnie Lobdell comes in. She's a Student Assistance Program counselor at Hunt. "The education piece needs to start early. There are a lot of kids given the opioid epidemic in Vermont that are seeing drugs at home or on their walk to school, and if we don't educate them about them and what's up and what they are, they are going to be even more curious than they are and will start trying them," Lobdell said.

The school focuses on numerous areas. The "Just Say No" campaign of yesteryear isn't one of them. "We do refusal skills. We call them refusal skills instead of just say no," Anger said.

Educators also discuss risks -- addiction and other short and long-term effects, including withdrawl; prevention; peer pressure and decision-making, through things like role-playing; and goals and consequences.

The message seems to be getting through to Hunt students like 7th grader Damian Ricciarelli. "If you take them you might get bad headaches and it might really hurt you," Ricciarelli said.

And some, like Kashindi, are spreading that message in school and at an after-school program offered here too. "There are just a lot of new drugs coming out, and things where teens seem so interested in them. But they don't really know what could happen to them, or what's inside the drugs they use. You should just know you're hurting yourself and people you love, so just be careful," Kashindi said.

All Vermont schools are required to provide substance prevention education, but the state admits it's not tracking that. Officials say it's not a one-size-fits all curriculum and that the approach varies by community. Funding for drug prevention education comes at the local level, though some schools get state and federal grants.