Fighting an epidemic as educators: Russell teachers attend training on substance use

Reprinted with permission of the Editor of the Daily Independent

Russell Independent Schools provided training to educators and community members to better reach their students.

The annual Needs Assessment is a requirement each school district must complete as a part of the state monitoring system, said Shawn Moore, Russell Middle School Principal. The results of the assessment revealed that the district was struggling to reach a group of students and families — those who have been impacted by addiction.

Five sessions in total helped educators and community members better understand the struggles students are facing and how to intervene. They began in January and completed their last session in May.

The training utilizes the book “The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth” by Sam Quinines, The New York Times bestselling author of Dreamland. The book was published in Nov. 2021.

Moore shared that they are aware of seven students in the district who have lost a parent to a drug overdose this year. In addition to the loss of a parent, many of these students are now being parented by grandparents or placed in foster care.

“Our students who have lost their parents to drug overdoses this year, that’s something you’re not going to overcome anytime soon,” said Moore. “Some of these kids have not only lost a parent, but their complete support system has been uprooted.”

Moore said the school sees the long term impacts addiction and loss can have on students.

“It’s just being more aware of what kids are going through outside of school,” said Levi Dalton, a Russell Middle School teacher. “I am pretty cognizant of the fact that there’s a lot of stuff that happened outside of our building that we can’t control, but I think it allows us to have a bit more empathy for our kids and understand that this is something that can happen in any household.”

Dalton said the training was eye-opening and gave more details on what students can experience when they leave the school building for the day.

Erica Bergmann is a fellow teacher at Russell Middle School who also attended the training. She has a few students who are open with her about their parents’ struggles with substances.

“(The training) has made it easier to talk to them,” said Bergmann, noting those conversations are always one-on-one and never in front of other students. “They may come up and talk to us, and we have more to offer from a knowledge perspective and a vocabulary perspective on how to talk about it appropriately with students.”

The training began with a session led by Greenup County Sheriff Matt Smith and Deputy Zach Clark. The two men shared what they encounter in Greenup County. They showed examples of drug and shared with the educators about the signs of use.

In the second session was their Voices of Hope session in which the educators heard from two women who shared their struggles with opioid addition and their recovery. In addition to their stories, they demonstrated how to use Narcan and the dangers of accidental exposure.

Third, was supporting families and educators heard from fellow Russell Independent Schools employees Jalina Wheeler and Kristie Whitaker. They discussed the CRUSH program which works with students whose parents are incarcerated.

Dr. Haileigh Ross, a medical specialist in Addiction Medicine told of how addiction influences the brain in the fourth session. The final session was a conversation with the author, Sam Quinones, over Zoom.

Both Bergmann and Dalton said the most intriguing things they learned where about how addiction and substances change the brain.

Bergmann said Dr. Ross shared how the brain is chemically changed.

“It can create mental illness,” Dalton elaborated. “Sometime addiction comes from or manifests itself because of mental illness, but it (addition) can also create it. It creates psychosis that may never go away even after someone is in recovery, that can remain.

Not just parents are using substances. Both teachers shared that there has been a significant spike in student substance use over the last decade. Bergmann said the rise has been “exponential.”

Dalton said it is scary to think of what is or could happen to students’ brains “when they start experimenting with this.”

Vapes are a serious problem in schools, Moore shared.

“There’s no barrier to a middle schooler getting a vape,” said Moore.

They steal them from parent or buy them off older siblings, said Moore. Students in the district as young as fourth and fifth grade have been caught with vapes, said Moore.

“You talk about gateways,” said Moore. “If they start vaping earlier, they are more likely to try something else and as we’ve learned in the training, you have no idea what you’re vaping. Fentanyl has been in there.”

Moore said young people have overdosed due to unknowingly inhaling fentanyl through a vape.

“One vape cartridge may have as much nicotine as two packs of cigarettes, so it’s not a harmless substance that they’re putting in their body,” said Moore

Dalton said they are relatively easy to hide, and don’t give off the same distinct scent of a cigarette.

“Thirty years ago, somebody was smoking in the bathroom, you could smell it, you knew, said Dalton. “It was pretty easy to know, but now this is way easier to conceal.

“As educators, we need to talk to our kids about what can hurt them and what’s harmful,” said Dalton. “They need to know that these things are out there. If they’re not educated, if we’re not the ones telling them what’s out there, then they may never hear it from anyone. Education is prevention.”

Building individual relationships with students is the norm at Russell Middle School, said Dalton.

“And I feel like that’s more important now than it ever has been,” he continued.

Even if teachers don’t necessarily know the exact problem, building those relationships will help them understand their students and be able to say “something’s just not right here,” said Dalton.

Attendance is a primary sign of something wrong, said Moore. Behavior is another tell-tale sign. A change in motivation can be a quick indicator as well, he said.

Addiction and substance use has no demographic or socio-economic boundaries, said Moore. It doesn’t just happen in homes that struggle financially. It can impact anyone, he said.

Checking in with the students who face the realities of substance use and abuse, isn’t always talking about their parent’s usage, said Bergmann.

Moore said building positive relationships with students helps deter usage. Sometimes something like the thought of “I don’t want to disappoint my band teacher” can be enough to curb a student from picking up a substance.

The principal added there is additional importance for those relationships because sometimes, the only people who care for a student are at schools, Moore said.

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