CLEVELAND — This summer, the 5 On Your Side Investigators are taking an in-depth look at opioids, overdoses and solutions to these major problems in our area. It’s a new series called “Finding a Fix.”
In Northeast Ohio, overdose deaths exploded in 2016 and 2017 with more than 1,300 deaths in a year. Then, in 2018, it seemed like the tide was turning, but during the past two years, the deaths ramped back up again. We’re starting our coverage with the messages our kids are getting in their schools about drugs.
DARE PROGRAM FOR STUDENTS
“You’re learning it now to help you later in life. And so there’s a reason they’re teaching it to you,” said Grace Gerhard, 13, from Solon. She’s been through the DARE program in Solon Schools.
“You’re in control of what you put into your body. That’s what I tell these kids,” said police officer Joann Felton. She’s been the DARE Instructor in Solon for the last 10 years. “Both my mom and my dad had suffered from addiction themselves and they’re no longer here. But I share it with (my students),” she told us.
She has a classroom at the middle school where DARE messages are taught day-in and day-out during school hours.
Maddie Ament, who’s also been through the program, said she's learned "how to get your way out of some bad situations that you can be put in."
Felton said DARE teaches kids "that they have some sort of plan of how to get a hold of the parent without feeling embarrassed or without feeling that they are stuck."
PANDEMIC NOT A PROBLEM FOR SOLON
With the recent pandemic that kept kids physically out of school, we asked if that was a problem for DARE messages getting to the children. Felton said no, and that technology still allowed for connections.
“I’m just really focusing on them,” she said. “And they make it so much easier for me because they care.”
DIFFERENT METHOD IN CITY OF EAST CLEVELAND
Meanwhile, East Cleveland’s Kirk Middle School has a different approach.
“We all have struggles. It’s all about how you deal with it,” said Lynda Owens from the Northern Ohio Recovery Association, or NORA. It’s a community organization that focuses on mental health. It has come into the East Cleveland School District to talk to at-risk kids about drugs during lunchtimes. Plus, there have been before and after school programs.
“Go on to your career. Go to college and be successful,” said 7th-grader Jamar Davis about the lessons taught.
“Building a foundation with the engagement and learning who that child is and learning who that parent is, (without that) you will not be able to reach that child,” said Owens.
Ninth-grader Isaiah Learmont moved to East Cleveland three years ago.
“To hear that somebody overdosed and possibly passed from it is like, that could happen to me, and I don’t want that. So, I stay away,” Learmont said.
“My bottom-line message is don’t do it. But, if you do…if you decide to do it, we have help,” said Owens.
“You just simply not throw something out there and hope that it lands in a good place,” said Dennis Bunkley. He works for the district focusing on student behavior. He told us they try to encompass the impact of drugs.
“We teach our children to be resilient…and what the process is, what things they need and how to ask for assistance,” said Bunkley.
THE PANDEMIC PROBLEM IN EAST CLEVELAND
He also said the pandemic was a big roadblock for the school district. Technology was a struggle and a problem for anti-drug messages.
“Calling it an obstacle is an understatement because the pandemic pretty much shut us down,” Bunkley said.
Students also told us that if a police officer was in charge of their program, that could be an obstacle, too, with many kids.
“With the stuff that’s going on with police brutality, even in here I saw kids on edge when cops come around because some would be afraid of it,” said Learmont.
“You have to be aware of your climate,” said Bunkley. “You have to have an understanding of what the relationship is in your particular community with the police department.”
The question is: are the approaches working? No one could solely blame programs like these for the drug problems we’re seeing. That’s not fair. Overdose deaths in Cuyahoga County reached more than 800 total in the past two years alone.
Solon and East Cleveland are two very different districts with two different methods, but still, have one common goal when it comes to drugs.
“I would not take it because of all that we’ve learned in DARE and how it can affect you,” said Gerhard.
“Stay away from it, just teaching me a lesson of how to stay away from the drugs instead of going to it,” said Learmont.
In the coming weeks, our “Finding a Fix” series will examine our communities, our state and what’s being done internationally about the global overdose problem.