Editorial: State widens drug education in middle schools

  • Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey this month announced plans for a $2 million addiction-prevention and education initiative for middle schools. FILE PHOTO

Monday, June 19, 2017

As communities confront the opioid epidemic in their homes, on the streets and in treatment centers, a new program aims to widen the prevention effort to middle schools through a public-private partnership.

Attorney General Maura Healey this month unveiled plans for a $2 million addiction-prevention and education initiative that is being funded by settlement money collected by the state and a $1.5 million contribution from the GE Foundation.

Called “Project Here,” the program is designed to address a lack of youth prevention and education services to fight addiction at an age when students are particularly vulnerable to drug use. The program is slated to begin in many of the state’s middle schools during the next academic year and aims to increase students’ access to a support network of social workers and people in recovery, supply schools with addiction education curricula and provide a mobile app for students to connect with addiction resources — and each other.

While some school districts already have robust health education courses, the program could provide a much-needed boost to other districts with limited resources. What’s more, the numbers show that targeting middle-school-age children with such information makes a lot of sense.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, of the 2.8 million new users of illicit drugs in 2013 nationally, 54 percent were under the age of 18.

Healey said this month that education and prevention are the keys to containing the opioid epidemic, and partnering with the GE Foundation provides one more way the state can help protect youths. The announcement comes on the heels of the attorney general’s distribution in May of $700,000 in settlement money directly to school districts, nonprofits and community organizations to fund prevention efforts through its Youth Opioid Prevention Grant Program.

What’s unique about “Project Here” is its use of technology and an approach that goes beyond the classroom in reaching middle school-age children. The attorney general’s office and GE Foundation are also partnering with The Herren Project, a nonprofit assisting people struggling with addiction, and Epicenter Experience, a mobile technology and marketing research company, which is developing the app for young people.

The app is being designed to provide an outside-the-classroom platform for middle schoolers to share their stories and discuss addiction with peers across the state. The app would also allow students to connect with counselors and social workers at The Herren Project, which was founded by Chris Herren, a former professional basketball player whose career was cut short by his struggles with heroin.

Herren told the Gazette earlier this month that some students are hesitant about talking with experts at their own school on the subject of drugs and addiction, but are more willing to reach out to a third party. He said an app can provide the distance these students need to feel comfortable coming forward and asking for assistance, whether it be about a family member’s addiction impacting their lives or their own substance use.

However, there are several questions that remain to be answered before the project is rolled out in the next academic year. The educational toolkits that schools will receive are still being developed, and it remains to be seen how the program will fit into a school district’s existing curriculum and class time. There is also the thorny question of privacy protections for students who use the app and may want to come forward to talk about potentially criminal behavior without fear of facing charges themselves or being called as a witness.

While these legal and logistical matters need to be addressed before the program is rolled out, the educational effort provides not only another welcome resource but also signals the continuing commitment by the attorney general’s office and other key stakeholders in battling the scourge of drug addiction in our communities, which has resulted in more than 5,000 deaths from opioid overdoses during the last three years across the state. That’s 5,000 too many.