A gritty real-world curriculum in Pittsfield schools: The scourge of heroin addiction

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PITTSFIELD — Should middle school students be thinking and talking about heroin use?

Meagan Ireland, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers coordinator for Pittsfield Public Schools, put this query on the table for her colleague, Mallory Reddy, to consider for the basis of a new eight-week after-school workshop.

"Absolutely not," Reddy recalled herself initially saying. "No way."

"It is a very uncomfortable topic that hits close to home," she said, reflecting on her first reaction.

Equally wary, Beth Trainor, a teacher for the program, admitted she hadn't ever really broached the subject with her own teenage children.

But then Reddy and Trainor reconsidered.

"This isn't a teenage thing or an adult issue. This isn't a poor person's problem or a rich person's," Trainor said. "When you really think about it, this is anybody's drug."

After finding no pushback from parents of participating children, they decided to pilot the "investigative learning" after-school course with a focus on the issue of heroin in the Berkshires. Ten students have taken part in it, each keeping notebooks on the subject, each bringing their own questions and ideas to their twice-weekly meetings, and each contributing to in-depth research on the topic, from reading local obituaries of unfortunate users to talking with Gina Armstrong, the city's director of public health.

Ireland said the issue was something "that's all over the news" and merits some conversation with younger students before they reached high school age.

"If we want kids to know that school is a safe place to talk about anything, we have to show them that," she said.

Reddy's premise that this is an issue that hits close to home was confirmed by the kids. In a show of hands when asked by The Eagle, about a third of the student group indicated that they knew of someone who has been affected by heroin use. And, according to their research of Pittsfield statistics for 2016, they found that the documented age range of heroin users was between the ages of 14 and 64.

"I was shocked," one student said after learning this.

"If we waited until high school to learn about this [issue], for some of us, it might have been too late," sixth-grader Dominic Dascani said.

At the beginning of their research project, Trainor said some students seemed disinterested in the subject. But after learning how people — including kids close to their age and adults their parents' ages — could through heroin use become at risk to contract diseases, lose jobs, lose money, become depressed or meet their death, the more the students became interested in sharing their findings. Ultimately, they'll share their project Thursday at an after-school program showcase at the school, which is open to the public.

"They've become very passionate about this project and they decided that they wanted to make Herberg students aware," Trainor said.

The group also had a chance to talk about ideas with their Reid Middle School counterparts, which led to a discussion about the need for a type of community center to lend social support to people affected by heroin addiction.

The students seemed to grasp the complexities of addiction and the arguments for and against the best way to battle a heroin epidemic. Several described issues with peer pressure and how many people start using drugs simply because they "think it's cool" or to "escape from reality." One student likened heroin's addictive properties to the concept of "telling a kid you can't eat candy for the rest of their life."

They learned about Narcan, the label name for an emergency treatment for people suspected of experiencing an overdose from an opioid, and how some fear that people may feel safer using heroin knowing that they can be potentially be saved by the effects-countering agent.

The students created posters to be hung around the school, but also said they know that there's a great likelihood that they might not be read. So they've each taken their own initiative to talk to family members and friends about what they've been learning.

Eighth-grader Owen McNeil said it was important for people to know about Massachusetts' so-called "Good Samaritan Law," which essentially exempts anyone who reports an overdose from facing any criminal charges for simple possession or being under the influence themselves.

Sixth-grader Dominic Dascani talked about how parents have a big role in whether their kids decide to try heroin.

"If the person raising you is doing drugs then the kid might want to try it because they want to be like their parents," he said.

Dascani and eighth-grader Iyanna Cross said they have, to the surprise of their families, been openly discussing these issues at home more often.

"I talk to my dad and my younger sister because I don't want to see my family get hurt like that ... because I love them," Cross said.

Asked how it feels, as students, to become teachers of sorts on this subject, sixth-grader Richard Scutt said, "I feel good that we're doing this, like this is the right thing to do."

Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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