“I think if there was anything I could say we needed, I think it would be people to partner, people who would step up and say ‘We’re going to make this a priority in our school. We’re going to find out whose parents are incarcerated and respond to those kids in a different way. We’re going to train our teachers to recognize for trauma and mental health needs and we’re going to sit down and sketch out a pathway for referrals for those kids,’” Goins said.
Both Pence and Mason said they are grateful that their school boards, in fact, do provide their centers with additional funding beyond the state’s allocation. And a federal grant-funded program has been helping school districts train teachers and other personnel in recognizing mental health issues in youth, which Goins said “couldn’t have been more timely.”
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, believes one way schools can support these kids is by helping them to understand addiction. “One of the things that is sometimes undervalued is if we believe that addiction is a disease and not a crime or a sin, but a disease, kids need to understand that. Because if we have hopes of (family) reunification, they have to understand what that mom and dad went through,” he said. “I know that’s a hard challenge to put in front of schools, but that’s No. 1.”
Brooks also looks at the big picture, noting that “The opioid epidemic fits a broader pattern of adverse experiences that more and more Kentucky kids are victims around,” including poverty, violence and incarcerated parents. School board members need to keep this in mind, he said.
“It’s so important that a school board member understand that you can’t separate an addiction issue from safety and from poverty and from myriad other social issues,” Brooks added.
Mason said she doesn’t know what kind of long-lasting effect the opioid crisis will have on children in these families, “and that’s what scares me.” Goins echoed that.
“I think that we don’t know the effects this problem is really going to have on this generation, and that’s the scary thing,” she said. “We have so many parents, so many grandparents that are not going to be around when these kids are going to need parents later on. And that’s the biggest thing for us: thinking 20 years down the road, what is this going to look like for these kids?”
Board view: The importance of listening and learning
Campbell County school board Chairwoman Janis Winbigler said she and members of her board became aware of the need for helping students affected by family drug abuse when school counselors and other personnel spoke up about it. It illustrates the process that board members use when tackling issues like this, she said.
“Ask a lot of questions of your school personnel; get to know your student body, get to know the needs that are not being met so the board can take steps to put positions in place to meet those needs,” said Winbigler, who works in the neighboring Bellevue Independent district as director of support services.