“Millions of people misuse opioids every year, millions more become dependent and overdose deaths are on the rise. The problem is far reaching. and opioid misuse isn't limited to one group — this epidemic does not discriminate — but one particularly vulnerable group is young people,” said Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg.

“We must take a proactive, preventative approach to this crisis by starting lifesaving conversations about prescription opioid misuse and heroin use early in life, both at home and in the classroom.”

How do you talk to young people — whether they’re your children or your students — about something as uncomfortable as the dangers of opioids?

The first thing to realize is that the opioid epidemic knows no boundaries. “It is important for parents to be aware that [opioid abuse] can potentially affect any family from any background,” said Dr. Natalie McCracken, assistant superintendent for K-6 at Norwin School District. Everyone should be seeking out information about this.”

Vulnerable populations

At Norwin Middle School, teachers began providing opioid awareness lessons to their students using a curriculum called Operation Prevention, which was developed by the DEA and Discovery Education. Why middle school? It looks to be one of the most vulnerable times in life regarding introduction to opioids. “[Middle school kids] are going through puberty and social changes,” says Tim Kotch, assistant superintendent for grades 7-12 at Norwin. “They’re getting more injuries because of sports. That provides access to painkillers.”

“Don’t think your children are too young... Students need to learn what these drugs can do to their bodies.”

“Operation Prevention is a free, science-based education tool for students, teachers and parents,” said Rosenberg. “In partnership with Discovery Education, we are able to make the opioid epidemic understandable for students and teach them the science behind it."

The prevention curriculum begins with the science of addiction: What does it do to your body and brain? What are the symptoms you can look out for? How can kids make smart, informed choices when they are prescribed or presented with opioids?

Lessons for everyone

“This education is important because [opioid abuse] is a problem that we cannot arrest ourselves out of,” said Kotch. “In addition to student lessons, this curriculum has a parent toolkit, with discussion starters and prompts for how to say no.”

Norwin Middle School has gotten positive feedback from parents: they want to know even more, and earlier.

“[Norwin] plans to expand into high school, where symptoms of opioid abuse get more involved,” said McCracken. “Students hear from people who are in recovery or currently in prison.” McCracken, who oversees the younger grades, also plans to expand the program into fifth and sixth grade classes. “Parents are concerned to be talking about opioids and addiction, but this curriculum is appropriate for kids. We cover what a medication actually is, why we take it, what the responsible use of it is and what over-the-counter medication is versus prescribed.”

Sharing young voices

Using Norwin as an established national leader, more school districts are coming on board, making it close to a million students that have been exposed to the opioid awareness curriculum.

“We asked ourselves: ‘How do we kick-start lifesaving conversations about drug-free living?’” said Lori McFarling, senior vice president of Discovery Education, which, as a leader in the creation of standards-aligned digital content for K-12 classrooms, created these no-cost resources available to schools nationwide in conjunction with the DEA.

“We launched a video challenge for students 13 years and over to have an opportunity to share their voice about being drug free,” said McFarling. “What the DEA wanted to do, through their collaboration with us, is leverage the power of digital content to engage young people — and speak to them — using a platform and technology they’re comfortable with. Operation Prevention is designed to meet kids where they are.”

Do not delay

Norwin’s educators worry that, in America, there is a perception among parents that “it won’t happen to my kids.” But with over half of all drug overdoses being linked to opioids, this epidemic doesn’t discriminate.

“Don’t think your children are too young,” said McFarling, “Or that you don’t live in an area where it’s a problem or that they’ll get the message elsewhere.” Students need to learn what these drugs can do to their bodies, and teachers and parents need to have that conversation as early as possible.

Find more information about Operation Prevention online at OperationPrevention.com and through Discovery Education Streaming at DiscoveryEducation.com.