MANATEE -- In the past decade, under budget cuts and state-mandated pressures pushing academics, drug education programs in Manatee County schools have almost disappeared, with a mandatory state course for high school students and little else for younger students.
"We've lost a lot," said Skip Wilhoit, Manatee County School District's safe schools, dropout prevention and student intervention specialist.
Wilhoit concedes that this district -- and probably many others across the state -- aren't doing enough to teach young, impressionable students about the dangers of drugs.
The problem underscores one of the biggest issues with heroin. Experts say education can be one of the best ways to combat heroin usage. And as heroin overdoses are on the rise in Manatee County, the education issue is coming to the forefront.
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Drug education in the schools now is a patchwork, piecemeal effort, Wilhoit said.
"It's just a scarce, scarce time," he said.
The programs used to be more robust in Manatee County. Starting in 2002, the district offered a Crossroads drug education program to children in both elementary and middle schools, which was run by the school resource officers -- law enforcement officials who worked in the schools directly with children.
The district's Crossroads program replaced the long-time popular DARE program. The Crossroad program, which consisted of eight, 45-minute lessons, was seen as a more proactive approach than the DARE program, and covered more topics. The DARE program advised students to "just say no" to drugs. Crossroads aimed to help students develop skills to deal with negative behaviors and negative situations.
But in budget cuts about eight years ago, the SROs were removed from elementary schools, and reduced in middle schools who then had to share SROs.
"That pretty much ruined all of our instruction," Wilhoit said.
Lt. Darin Bankert of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office said education and awareness are vital to combating the drug and overdose issue.
"I think awareness is a big part of it, and I think that in conjunction with some interdiction that we do as law enforcement - those are probably the two biggest factors that will affect the death rate from overdoses," Bankert said.
A stronger emphasis on increasing academics and test scores from the state also forced a cutback in drug education for high school students, Wilhoit said.
"The state continues to weed out social and emotional learning from our curriculum," he said.
In Florida high schools, students get some drug education as part of the state-required HOPE class. HOPE, or Health Opportunities through Physical Education, combines physical education and health education and must be taught by either two teachers -- one with a health education certification and one with a physical education certification -- or by a teacher with certifications in both.
In Manatee schools, the HOPE class is taken mostly by freshmen, Wilhoit said, which is encouraged to hit the 14- and 15-year-olds.
SROs in the middle schools still do some drug education, and students may get a hint of drug education in their health class in middle school, he said, but it isn't a concerted effort.
Wilhoit said he doesn't know of any elementary school in the district that includes drug education as part of its curriculum.
Talking to kids
When it comes to talking to kids about drugs, educators have to walk a fine line, Wilhoit said. You don't want to scare kids unnecessarily, but you also have to be straightforward.
"You have to lay the truth on them," Wilhoit said.
Experimenting with drugs deals a lot with the perceived risk. If students think a drug is very risky, they're less likely to try it. If a drug doesn't seem to be "as bad," students may be more likely to try it. For example, Wilhoit said, methamphetamine never really caught on with young students because the visuals associated with people addicted to meth are incredibly powerful.
"Perception of risk is one of the great determiners of drug use," he said.
Another problem? Dealing with misinformation, Wilhoit said. Students pick up on information about drugs in the media, on the streets and from their fellow students.
"You've got to make sure they get the information from a reliable source," he said.
Brandilyn Karnehm, a recovering opioid addict who has been clean since April 2013, says she wishes her family could have shown her "what really happens" when on drugs.
"I think my family could've been more strict on me and disciplined me more," said Karnehm, a 23-year-old lifelong Manatee County resident. "They could've educated me more about drugs and where they take people. They don't show the true story of it.
"They say, 'Don't do drugs or you're going to die.' No. If you do drugs, you're going to be in and out of jail and institutions, you're going to be homeless, you're going to be robbing and stealing and you're going to be sick."
Angelina Dash, another recovering opioid addict who went through the Manatee County school system, said she had DARE education but it didn't stop her from doing drugs.
"The 'Just say no' didn't really help," Dash said. "What addiction was like wasn't really part of it."
Dash now wishes former addicts had come in to speak when she was a student, so that she'd have known what she was getting into. She also wished they'd given more information on where to seek help when people do develop drug problems.
"I had no idea what kind of help was out there when I needed it," she said.
For Wilhoit, there is one glimmer of hope among the lack of formal drug education.
The Florida Department of Children and Families anonymously surveys middle and high school students about tobacco, alcohol and drug usage.
The survey was first administered to Florida's middle and high school students during the 1999-2000 school year, and is repeated in the spring, according to the department's website. In the spring of even-numbered years, the survey is administered with the Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, sampling enough students to generate data applicable at the county and DCF district level. In odd years, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey are also added. All surveys are administered to a statewide sample of students.
In Manatee County, the reported rates of usage are down, Wilhoit said. That may be due to students lying on the survey, he acknowledged, but it's one of the only ways the district can know.
According to the 2014 results, the most recent available, fewer than 1 percent of all Manatee County student surveyed reported using heroin. But the county was still above the reported state average of all students surveyed who had tried heroin. In Manatee County, 0.9 percent of students reported trying heroin in their lifetime, greater than the 0.6 percent of students across the state.
One-third of Manatee County students surveyed reported trying "any illicit drug" in their lifetime, the same percentage as the state.
"Our rates are still down," he said. "That's good news."
But still, there's more that could be done in the schools.
"We don't do a good enough job of it anymore," Wilhoit said.
-- Herald online/political reporter Kate Irby contributed to this report.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.