First of two editorials on Manatee's heroin crisis
Just as Manatee County learns of the horrific toll heroin is exacting on the community thanks to the past week's series of Herald reports detailing the societal impacts, one pivotal strategy to combat drug abuse is mostly missing. Where once Manatee County schools played a dynamic role in educating youth at various grade level, today the substance abuse prevention program has shriveled to a mandatory course for high school students.
Florida's tunnel-vision fixation on academic success, college preparation and job training and the resulting mandates on school districts undercut student health education, character building and personal values -- all necessary to warding off peer pressure and drug temptations.
Early intervention and life skills curriculum are vital, and just a high school course comes too late for many youth. Even that lone state-required course, called HOPE (Health Opportunities through Physical Education) only offers some drug education, not comprehensive instruction.
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"We've lost a lot. ... It's just a scarce, scarce time," the district's safe schools, dropout prevention and student intervention specialist, Skip Wilhoit, told the Herald's Meghin Delaney in a Wednesday report.
How scarce is scary -- for the future of youth.
Thirteen years ago, the district launched a Crossroads substance abuse education program in elementary and middle schools. School resource officers, from law enforcement agencies, led the program.
Crossroads replaced the oft-maligned DARE program, which essentially relied on the "Just Say No" mantra. The Crossroads curriculum, though, sought to empower students with the skills necessary to counteract negative behaviors and situations. SROs led the series of eight 45-minute lessons. Even that seems insufficient, but compared with today's relative lack of proactive lessons, Crossroads was a godsend.
But when Florida fell into the recessionary abyss and state revenue plunged, education spending took a steep drop. School resource officers were dropped from Manatee's elementary schools, and middle schools were forced to share their important contributions to drug education, thus diluting their effectiveness. "That pretty much ruined all of our instruction," Wilhoit professed.
That especially matters in grade schools, where Wilhoit admitted he knew of none with a substance abuse curriculum. This should be the impressionable age where education can have a powerful and lasting impact.
While we encourage the school board and administration to review priorities, considering many espouse the statement that "it's all about the children," the district should be educating the whole child.
But the first line of defense against drug and alcohol abuse should be parents -- and grandparents, too. Teaching a child to turn down drugs from a friend, which is the most immediate risk for teen drug abuse, is not a difficult task, especially through role playing. Children should be taught to avoid friendships with drug and alcohol users and learn to find validation, recognition and fun with positive relationships.
The Herald's "Heroin Overdose Crisis in Manatee" series included several reports by Kate Irby, including an extensive article on Brandilyn Karnehm, a recovering opiod addict at age 23. She regretted not receiving stricter discipline and drug abuse education from her parents, especially warnings about how abusers descend into a hellish life of jail, homelessness, crime and sickness.
That should inform parents about their responsibilities to their children.
Resources for parents are plentiful. The Manatee County Substance Abuse Coalition has numerous links to information and guides at its website, drugfreemanatee.org. Click on the Resources button to locate those.
The difficulty here, though, is motivating parents to act. Then there are the parents who abuse substances themselves, setting the worst possible example.
Those are reasons for public schools to implement substance abuse programs. And those should be reasons the state funds districts properly so classes can be held from elementary to high schools. Lawmakers could help by lobbying for these resources.
Coming this week:, Under mounting pressures, addiction treatment centers short-changed in state funding.