Note to readers: This is the third installment of a four-day series examining the cause of Will County’s record number of heroin-related deaths in 2016 and efforts to quell the epidemic.
BRAIDWOOD – Reed-Custer Unit School District 255 is tackling the problem of drug addiction early on – by teaching fifth-graders how to make and think about their choices.
Educators at District 255 are not alone in their efforts to prevent drug abuse among youths in Will County, which has seen record high levels of heroin-related deaths in recent years.
The Braidwood area in particular, where District 255 is located, has seen high levels of heroin-related arrests and overdose deaths.
District 255 Superintendent Mark Mitchell said he knows heroin is “extremely available in this immediate area” and its highly addictive nature is one of the main reasons it’s so in demand. But the district can help control the decisions youths make, as well as engage parents to talk to their children and be aware of the warning signs of addiction and drug use, he said.
“A lot of what we try to do here is teach these kids to make their best decisions on their own,” Mitchell said.
Teaching youths how to make good choices and educating them on the dangers of drugs, including heroin, in local schools is part of a larger effort by leaders and communities countywide to reduce heroin addiction and overdose deaths.
Last year, the Will County Board won a federal grant to bring heroin education programs by the Robert Crown Center for Health Education to Wilmington School District 209-U and Lincoln-Way District 210.
The Robert Crown Center has been a recurrent provider of heroin prevention education in Will County. The nonprofit has provided programs for school districts in Joliet, Shorewood, Plainfield and Valley View Unit School District 365U, which covers Romeoville and Bolingbrook.
Kris Adzia, Robert Crown Center education director, said in the past there was a strong idea of encouraging youths to “just say no” to drugs or scare them, but both tactics have been found to be ineffective.
The problem of drug addiction needs to be a conversation between teachers, parents and students again and again, she said.
“The way prevention works is to look at a multifaceted approach,” Adzia said.
Robert Crown Center focuses on training teachers on the science behind drug addiction – how it affects the brain and adolescent development – as well as the social and emotional aspects, such as how it can affect someone’s network of friends or ability to stay employed, said Mark Robinson, the center’s heroin prevention program manager.
Fifth-graders at District 255 are involved in a prevention education program called “Too Good For Drugs,” where they learn how to set goals, make decisions, participate in positive friendships and activities, identify and manage emotions, and communicate effectively.
Students also bring activities home that they can work on with their parents.
In one classroom activity students took part in last week, they were prompted with multiple options for light-hearted decisions – pick a snack, a place to vacation, a fun activity – but one decision was more serious. It asked them what they would do if they saw a friend steal a candy bar.
Under the guidance of Christine Nelson, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, the students discussed the positive and negative consequences of the choices they would make in reaction to seeing a friend steal.
“There are things that will result or be a result of the choices that you make,” Nelson said to the students.
The "Too Good For Drugs" program at the district was the result of efforts by the Braidwood Area Healthy Community Coalition to address drug addiction at lower grade levels. Pete Dell'Aquila, coalition project coordinator, said the best thing about it is that it's not just about drug addiction, but basic life skills.
“They’re tools that we’re trying to build at an early age so that when the time comes, if the time comes … They’re equipped now with the tools and the knowledge,” Dell’Aquila said.
Dell’Aquila said heroin addiction is a worldwide issue and it “doesn’t have a face” and doesn’t discriminate by age, gender or race. He said there’s not one solution to fix the problem and people need to take as many avenues as they can to resolve it.
“I feel like our community is really rallying together to do some of those things,” he said.