Roaring Fork schools consider new drug prevention strategies, experts weigh in
When school district staff gathered at Basalt High School (BHS) on Jan. 18, they taught families about fentanyl contamination and how to recognize the warning signs of drug addiction.
Interim Principal Megan Hartmann says they’re hosting these sessions because kids across the country are using pretty serious substances, both intentionally or otherwise.
“There's been increased evidence of especially teenagers using drugs like fentanyl, cocaine, meth, heroin, [and] different other opioids in schools,” Hartmann said. “And it's not just in our valley. It's in our state and it's across the nation.”
Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) staff told Aspen Public Radio in an email that their evidence comes from “disciplinary actions and qualitative data.”
And while reports show that illicit drug use among students is down overall compared to pre-pandemic levels, youth overdose deaths are spiking across the country. The National Institutes of Health say this increase is largely attributed to illicit fentanyl.
In response, RFSD has offered up a few potential strategies to address these problems — such as implementing a robust drug and alcohol education program.
They’ve also suggested increasing the number of school resource officers, closing campuses so that kids can’t leave during their free periods, or bringing drug-sniffing dogs to campus, which have all drawn skepticism.
Maggie Seldeen, the founder of High Rockies Reduction, works in western Colorado to limit the negative effects of drug use and was at the BHS meeting.
“I haven't seen anyone who's supportive of these punitive methods,” Seldeen said. “And if anything, people seem really upset. And that's all I've heard from person after person, community member after community member, parent after parent.”
She grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley and knows what can happen when communities shame people struggling with addiction, or when resources are unavailable.
Her parents were addicts, and her mom struggled with mental health issues until she died in 2006 from a heroin overdose.
Seldeen was just 15.
“So I had kind of a rocky road,” Seldeen said. “I really struggled here and didn't have anyone who believed my voice as a teenager.”
She received D.A.R.E. programming in school, a set of drug abstinence lessons that became popular in the U.S. in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Seldeen remembers the lessons were sometimes led by police officers and used ineffective scare tactics.
Her family also taught her that the police could get them all in trouble, so she worries that bringing in more officers or drug-sniffing dogs could alienate the students who need the most help.
“And so not every student is going to be freaked out by a K-9 unit, but the students that are, [they] are the students who we're going to lose trust with,” Seldeen said. “We're going to lose connection with. We're potentially going to lose seeing them in school as much.”
Seldeen suggests more evidence-based practices.
Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development is an online registry of scientifically-backed interventions that promote healthy habits.
Dr. Karl G. Hill is the director of the Prevention Science Program at CU Boulder and helped develop this resource. In an interview with Aspen Public Radio, he said many problem behaviors like drug use and violence have a common set of root causes.
“If you can address those root causes, then you have a broader effect across many different outcomes,” Dr. Hill said.
He’s been studying prevention and youth development since the 1990s, and he assessed the Roaring Fork School District’s different ideas.
When it came to increasing the number of school resource officers, Dr. Hill said that studies have shown “the presence of a school resource officer had actually zero impact on school violence.”
He does not expect that it would have any impact on drugs, either, since school violence and drug use tend to rise and fall in tandem, and he doesn’t think closing campuses shows much promise either.
“The majority of adolescent crime happens between 3 to 5 p.m. in the afternoon after kids get out of school and before their parents come home from work,” Dr. Hill said.
He said he had not heard of any schools introducing drug-sniffing dogs, and was doubtful it could be a viable solution.
Many of the evidence-based programs that Dr. Hill recommends teach kids to manage their impulses, emotions, and make good decisions.
He added that programs with a specific emphasis on drug education are promising, as long as they are targeted at students, parents and teachers, providing educators with the tools they need to handle this important curriculum.
And since the transition from elementary to middle school is a peak time for drug onset, Dr. Hill recommends schools start their programming early and incorporate it into a bigger strategy that boosts social-emotional learning.
Seldeen says kids are really hungry for this kind of knowledge.
“Kids want to know about drugs, and if they have the science and information and the opportunities to practice saying ‘no’ and having these conversations, they're a lot less likely to experiment or use.”
Roaring Fork School District staff said whatever drug prevention plan they choose, community input and buy-in will be an important component.
The district’s interim superintendent is scheduled to discuss next steps at its Feb. 6 school board meeting.