By JEN CARDINES
Over the past two years, national headlines have been calling attention to a nation-wide surge in opioid use, from oxycodone to heroin and the recent rise in fentanyl. It has received a lot of attention by state and federal lawmakers. Last week, it was a focus at two town meetings.
Rev. Victoria Triano sparked the debate when she passionately addressed fellow Town Councilors at the Feb. 13 meeting, putting a call to action on the Southington community.
“It is confirmed that we do have a serious situation right now,” Triano said. “Now either we’re serious about this thing, or we’re not.”
Triano called for added measures in Southington’s schools, suggesting more frequent patrols of drug sniffing dogs and a more comprehensive plan of action.
“One of the drugs that [Triano] is referring to is heroin,” said Town Council chair Michael Riccio. “It’s here. It’s real, and it’s at the high school.”
The following week, Board of Education chair Brian Goralski said that Southington High School is safe. He said that school officials have already been taking steps to address the issue.
“Nothing in this community matters more than safety, and this is directly in response to some discussion at the town council meeting a couple weeks ago,” he said. “Drugs are everywhere in our society. We as a board have been steadfast in our belief that drugs don’t belong in our schools.”
Two of the town councilors are representatives for the Southington Town-wide Effort to Promote Success (STEPS) coalition. Although there are a number of students, teachers, and administrators that are active on the panel, STEPS has no official ties to the BOE.
“We have people that represent the schools, but we don’t have anyone that represents the BOE,” said STEPS prevention specialist Kelly Leppard. “Maybe they’re going to come to the table.”
To date, 15 students have been expelled from Southington Public Schools during the 2016-17 year. While the causes for expulsion are many, and student names and details are kept confidential, BOE member Robert Brown made a slip during a meeting last month, revealing that a number of students were expelled in January due to drug use.
No information about the type of substance or who was involved has been released.
There are initiatives in place to address this problem and bring public awareness to the table. STEPS, the Southington Police Department, and the SHS administration are sponsoring an information night to help families understand current drug trends, prevention efforts, and agencies that help with substance abuse.
For more information about the upcoming forum, click here: STEPS forum flier
Leppard also gave a presentation during recent BOE and Town Council meetings to update board members and the public on the coalition’s progress.
“I think that all of this is just bringing more awareness that we need to strengthen this partnership,” she said.
In her presentation to the local boards, Leppard said that recent surveys show parent involvement and positive peer influences have increased, the 30 day use rates for alcohol and tobacco have decreased, and more kids think alcohol use is risky.
The Asset Building Classrooms initiative is building protective factors for youth in every school and every classroom. Every two years, STEPS surveys attitudes and behaviors on students in seventh, ninth, and 11th grade, including perception of harm, peer risk, and parental disapproval.
The coalition also partners with local police to send minors into liquor stores for compliance checks on proper identification. Many other programs are in place throughout Southington to spread awareness and instill prevention.
Over the past five years, the prescription drop box, located in the police headquarters lobby, has helped to keep unused medications from falling into the wrong hands.
“The installation of our drop box and media campaign to advertise our box was followed up with the ‘Lock or Drop it’ campaign to educate Southington residents on the importance of keeping medications in a secured location when they are still using them,” said Leppard.
She said data shows that many substance addictions stemmed from prescription drug use when people were given pain medications for injuries. New laws limit the amount of pills that a pharmacy can supply at one time. However, legislature is also considering the legalization of marijuana for medicinal and recreational use.
Recent STEPS surveys have shown that perception of harm for marijuana has decreased by 17 percentage points since they have been surveying Southington students.
“We know there is a low perception of harm regarding marijuana, due to our current laws and legislation,” Leppard told the boards. STEPS continues to focus on underage drinking issues, as well as marijuana, tobacco, and drug education.
STEPS representatives aren’t limited to just adults in the community. Within the many sectors of the community, a youth council of 30 students is actively involved with STEPS, participates in activities such as making promotional videos, and upholds the STEPS values. Their most recent video about e-cigarettes is due to air in the next week.
Although these drug trends have recently made public appearances a topic on the record, STEPS has been active for almost a decade. All of the programs, studies, and resources have been going on for years.
The nation-wide D.A.R.E. program has been in the school curriculum for an extended period of time. STEPS is going on its ninth year in town, working with every sector of the community. The school resource officer position at SHS has shown positive statistics since its start in the 1990s.
Despite all the progress made, Leppard told board members that substance abuse is absolutely a concern in the community, and that coalition partners understand the difficulty in changing norms.
“Although we have successes, we certainly have our work cut out for us,” she said. “But with our efforts and the support of community stakeholders like yourselves, we are going to continue to make a difference on the local level.”