Opioid addiction takes center stage in annual county school superintendent summit

By  | The Chronicle-Telegram
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ELYRIA — Lorain County’s education community took a step toward being more involved in the conversation surrounding the opioid epidemic by dedicating this year’s Superintendents’ Summit to the topic. In years prior, the summit was where the county’s 15 district leaders collectively met through an event sponsored by the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce to articulate key education issues that affect county schools. Topics such as state testing, local control and intervention programs gave business leaders in the room a glimpse into what districts are doing to prepare students.

Tuesday, the conversation turned to drugs, something educators say has infiltrated classrooms for years.

“Our schools are simply a microcosm of our community,” said Elyria Schools Superintendent Tom Jama. “If it’s taking place in our community, it is taking place in our schools and if it is taking place in our schools, it is taking place in our community.”

Elyria, at the urging of Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely, stepped up its education and prevention efforts in 2016 and Jama said Tuesday that the work will continue as long as students need the extra support. He sees it from a personal viewpoint after he said he lost two family members to opioid overdoes.

“We felt the biggest bang was going to be taking place in the schools with the youngest children all the way to our high school children,” he said.

To fully understand just how the tentacles of drug abuse are touching the classroom, Keystone High School Principal James Kohler offered a profile of a fictional student at the school affected by drug use in his family and trying to climb out from underneath the enormous weight of it.

“This is someone I care very much about,” Kohler said. “He is a very active member of the schools, participates in our sports teams, he is very much about his grades and he is like the father figure to his younger brother.”

But this student also lives with his grandparents — his parents are both addicts and lost custody a long time ago. He’s the type of kid that offers anyone a ride when he has access to a car, but when he doesn’t will walk miles to make it to practice on time.

“The one thing that stood out to me is we have kids that come in and chat from time to time and he tells you a story very nonchalantly that several times over the summer he had to call 911,” Kohler said. “He said he would take things out of his freezer to pack his father with something frozen while he waits for help.”

When explaining why the summit, billed as an opportunity for the business and education communities to come together, turned the focus to drugs, Greg Ring, outgoing superintendent of the Educational Service Center of Lorain County, said it was because a larger conversation is taking place in the community that needs an all-hands-on-deck approach. The meeting was as much about coming together as it was a call to action, he said.

“As you can see the charge is way bigger than the three R’s,” he said. “We wish we could come to school every day as superintendents, principals and teachers and just focus on achievement. But you can see on an increasing level we have other challenges and we need your help.”

Don Sheldon, who spearheads the Philanthropic and Community Coalition to End the Opioid Epidemic, said during the summit that educators are on the front lines, often seeing hidden problems before they spill out into the community. As such, educators are ideal partners in the quest to stem addiction’s hold in the community.

“It’s a big problem and we need to address it,” he said. “We are working with more than 18 agencies in the community to develop this plan and put it in place and what the important message for all of you (in the room) is we need your help. You’re the content experts. The foundations, the boards — we can help fund things, we can help make them work with you and coordinate things. But we need your input.”

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