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The epidemic’s effects are much bigger than student overdoses and districts handing out naloxone.

By Joyce Tsai

Peggy Giuliano is a 6th-grade teacher in Newton Falls in northeast Ohio who is living the stark reality of opioid abuse infiltrating her community every day – both in her school and at home.

At school, she estimates that on average she’s dealing with at least three to six students who have parents with an opioid problem in each class of 25 in her elementary school. And those are the problems that are known, she says.

“We’ve dealt with kids who have lost parents to drugs, found parents on the toilet passed out and had to call 911 for them,” she says – in addition to kids, who have suffered neglect, abuse, rape, and pregnancy scares.

“I’ve seen my job change as a teacher,” she says about the transformation that the opioid crisis has wreaked on her community – and her school. “You almost have to have a counseling background to do this job now.”

The veteran teacher knows more than she cares to about the devastation that opioids can wreak. Giuliano also is a grandmother who has taken on the responsibility of raising her granddaughter as her son recovers from his own opioid addiction.

“These kids are suffering socially and emotionally and they don’t know how to express that,” she said. “I just feel you have to be more understanding and compassionate of what they’re going through.”

The veteran teacher also is a grandmother who has taken on the responsibility of raising her granddaughter as her son recovers from his own opioid addiction.

In case you hadn’t heard, it’s now official.

Opioids are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and deaths are rising faster than ever in the country, mainly due to opioid addiction.

In fact, the opioid death toll in the United States has quadrupled since 1999 to more than 60,000 in 2016, making it the nation’s top killer, eclipsing the death tolls this year from gun deaths and car crashes combined.

Opioid addiction is overtaking the nation’s communities, particularly those in the Rust Belt, the Midwest, Appalachia and New England, at a breakneck pace.

The long arm of devastation has seeped into criminal justice, health care and social welfare systems:

The New York Times has reported that opioid overdoses by toddlers and teenagers have been alarmingly on the rise in recent years. For children ages 1 to 4, hospitalizations for opioid poisoning increased by 205 percent. Among 15- to 19-year-olds, hospitalizations rose by 161 percent.

The Guardian recently reported on a new study that found that the teen drug overdose rate rose by 20 percent in 2015, driven by heroin and synthetic opioid use, after years of decline, coupled by an increasing number of deaths among teenage girls.

Mother Jones recently reported an 8 percent rise in foster care placements for children nationwide resulting from parents’ addictions, with dramatic rises in states like Maine, Massachusetts, and North Dakota.

Children of the Opioid Epidemic Are Flooding Foster Homes. America Is Turning a Blind Eye. – Mother Jones

This Mother Jones piece focuses on the spike in foster care placements resulting from opioid crisis.

It seems only obvious that opioid addiction is spilling over into the nation’s educational systems and its classrooms as well.

However, media coverage of the opioid crisis has been growing quickly but unevenly, and its effects on schools have yet to be fully explored.

Educators and advocates report that education journalists have been relatively slow to include the issue in their coverage.

“There’s been a lot of reporting on the opioid crisis but there hasn’t necessarily been a lot of reporting about what that means in our classrooms… and how education needs to change to address that,” says Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “So I think we could use news coverage on more aspects of it, for sure.”

“We need more stories that examine what services and what help these children impacted by the opioid crisis need, and what barriers they need to overcome to be able to learn,” Cropper says. “And how do we get those services in the schools to help them be successful?”

There’s been a lot of reporting on the opioid crisis but there hasn’t necessarily been a lot of reporting about what that means in our classrooms. — Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

It’s not just that there have been too few in-depth stories about opioid addiction affecting schools, but also that many that have been produced have generally focused on the immediate risks of opioid addiction and overdose, rather than exploring its full depth and nuance.

Nearly all seem to be written with the assumption that the biggest threats that opioids present to students are exposure or addiction itself, such that stories focus on, and even in some cases highlight, cases where children are fatally overdosing:

“When 10-year-old Alton Banks left the community swimming pool on the last day of his life, he walked past the elementary school where he had just finished 5th grade,” opens the Washington Post’s Miami neighborhood’s intense struggle with opioids. “No one yet has the slightest clue how the opioid crisis that has battered the nation with such ferocity ended up taking a happy, skinny little boy a month shy of his 11th birthday.”

A fair number of the education stories on the opioid crisis have been about schools choosing to stock up on the anti-opioid overdose drug, naloxone – and the worry that some critics have that it would end up encouraging students to abuse heroin and opioids. Just this week, the News Observer reported a plan to give naloxone to school resource officers in Wake County. See also the March New York Times story about school nurses and naloxone.

In School Nurse’s Room Tylenol Bandages and an Antidote to Heroin The New York Times

March 2017 New York Times story.

A few stories have looked at the movement to establish more recovery high schools as a more effective way of helping students kick their addiction and graduate from school. A 2016 Boston Globe story highlighted recovery high schools. (For more on this approach, go here.)

And one or two other news articles also have given a glimpse into what some schools are doing, such as bringing in the county coroner to speak at schools, to educate and build student awareness of just how destructive and deadly opioids can be – in hopes of scaring them straight.

The Virginia Pilot covered a plan to beef up drug education programs in Hampton schools. Like the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Kristen Graham, some education reporters’ own lives have been affected by the epidemic.

‘I’d be in a worse situation—or dead—if I weren’t here.’

This 2016 Boston Globe story focused on the “recovery school” model.

This is a good start – but it’s not enough given the seriousness of the problem, and it’s often only addressing the surface of the issue.

The impacts of opioid addiction on schools are often indirect, revealing themselves in classroom behavior by students with family members who are addicted, are in jail, or are in recovery but still unable to care for their children.

“They are kids that can’t sit with other kids behind them,” says Trish Taddeucci, director of educational advocacy at the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition of St. Louis. “These are kids who have a lot of explosive temperament issues, so that things will happen in school that seem very minor and all of sudden they are flipping desks and screaming,” she says.

The tendency to act out and misbehave and have problems trusting authority figures often ends up rendering old-school disciplinary strategies obsolete and counter-productive, she says.

“Kids with trauma backgrounds carry shame all the time,” she says. “That’s part of their DNA but a lot of our discipline strategies in the classroom implement shame.”

The Park City story One boy died then another — and the opioid epidemic came into full view Deseret NewsThe Deseret (Utah) News reports the story of kids dying from opioids in affluent Park City.

A smattering of stories in the mainstream media, including the Wall Street Journal and Mother Jones Magazine, have done an admirable job of going in greater depth about the human toll the opioid addiction has taken in a way that goes beyond the shocking numbers. They powerfully humanize how many kids are being forced into foster care due to the scourge of opioids.

Another  story that deserves attention is an in-depth narrative in the Deseret News, which is part of its larger ongoing series of articles on the Utah’s opioid crisis. The story digs deep and weaves in the larger context of how the fatal overdoses of two Park City, Utah, 13-year-old students was a wake-up call that the opioid crisis had arrived in their affluent suburban community.

Another piece worth checking out is the remarkable longform New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot, “The Addicts Next Door,” which provides both a deeper dive and wraparound view of how the opioid crisis has shattered families in so many impoverished communities.

The story starts off describing how two parents overdosed during their kids’ Little League game. They were revived by EMT workers with naloxone, to the jeers and displeasure of others in the crowd who were more bothered that it disrupted the game than the fact two people almost died before their eyes. They have become numbed and hardened, because such spectacles have become frightfully commonplace in their drug-infested community.

The New Yorker story also offers a  glimpse into what is happening to the schools in these opioid- devastated communities. Talbot reveals that having a kindergarten classroom filled with such kids, stricken by the opioid misuse of their parents, has become dolefully run-of-the-mill.

As one grandmother caring for her granddaughter, after losing her son to a fatal overdose, in the story, notes: “sadly, that there are so many of such kids.”

In fact, she’s heard that about 40 percent in her grandchild’s pre-K class are being raised by someone other than a parent. “And that means 40 percent have been found out,” she says. “Who knows what’s going on with the other parents?”

The New Yorker story describes how two parents overdosed during their kids’ Little League game and were revived by EMT workers to the jeers of others more bothered that it disrupted the game than the fact two people almost died before their eyes.

There may be some hesitancy among education journalists to delve into the opioid crisis for fear of getting the story wrong or vilifying its victims. As a recent “On The Media” segment highlighted, there is a long history of problematic media treatment of drug epidemics. And nobody wants to repeat the deeply flawed “crack baby” panic coverage of 20 years ago.

But more need to be done in the mainstream media to address the varied and multifaceted effects of the opioid crisis on schools. After all, it’s these same kids in foster care and growing up in unstable opioid-laden households that are also at highest risk of failing academically and dropping out of school, as well as suffering unemployment, incarceration and drug addiction themselves.

Joyce Tsai is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay area who has reported on education, health care, business, politics and crime in the East Coast, the Midwest, the Lone Star State, and the D.C. Beltway. You can find her at @JoyceTsaiNews.