Alaska (Alaska Beacon) - Who should warn children about the dangers of opioids? Some state lawmakers believe that Alaska’s public schools have a role in ensuring that children avoid the drugs that are causing an epidemic of overdose deaths.
A measure sponsored by Sutton Republican Rep. George Rauscher, House Bill 6, would require that the state Department of Education and Early Development create an awareness and prevention curriculum about opioids. The program would be a lesson plan, at least 60 minutes in length, for grades 6 through 12, developed with partners from the Department of Health, state and tribal organizations and other entities, according to the bill. Teaching the program would not be mandatory; use of the curriculum would be left up to school districts and schools.
At the bill’s first hearing, in the House Health and Social Services Committee on Thursday, lawmakers heard from Rauscher and an invited addiction expert who testified that such a statewide program is needed.
Michael Carson, a longtime educator as well as the founder and chair of the Mat-Su Opioid Task Force, cited the rapid increase in drug overdose and deaths in Alaska. These have been dominated by fentanyl, a highly potent opioid that is found in a variety of other street drugs. Between 2020 and 2021, Alaska drug overdose deaths increased by over 75%, by far the highest rate of increase among all states.
“Unfortunately, there is no current health curriculum that addresses opioids, much less fentanyl,” Carson said. The last revision to the state’s health curriculum was done prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, “and there is no mention of opioid tolerance, dependence or additions,” Carson said. Even materials distributed to teachers do not contain information about fentanyl specifically, he said.
Within Alaska, those at highest risk are between 25 and 34 years old, Carson said. That makes it appropriate to aim prevention programs at students in secondary schools, he said.
“All our 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds are eventually going to be in that high-risk group of 25- to 34-year olds. I just think it’s imperative to move upstream,” he told the committee. “There’s something to say about moving upstream and cutting off the flow up the river of addiction.”
Until a statewide curriculum emerges, he said schools could use a 30-minute program he created called Kellsie’s Lesson. The lesson plan is named after a young woman who died of drug complications while in jail in Anchorage in 2016.
Carson said he has presented Kellsie’s Lesson to students during Red Ribbon Week, a designated October period for national drug-abuse awareness. School and school districts could consider doing the same, he said.
The bill has gained some across-the-aisle support. Democratic Reps. Jennie Armstrong of Anchorage and Andi Story of Juneau have signed on as cosponsors.
Committee members on Thursday expressed receptiveness to the bill. However, they had questions.
Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, who harkened back to the campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, including the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, asked whether it would be appropriate to broaden the program to include other drugs.
Rep. Jesse Sumner, R-Wasilla, cautioned that drug-education programs in schools may not work. Sumner said he recalled the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program, and his impression was that it was an “abject failure” that produced no positive results.
He asked for Rauscher and other bill proponents to provide information in the future about drug-education programs’ effectiveness.
“I do agree that there is a massive problem with opioids in the state of Alaska, and something needs to be done. This is something, but that doesn’t mean that this needs to be done,” Sumner said.
The committee took no action Thursday on the bill. Chairman Mike Prax, R-Fairbanks, said the matter would be considered in the future.
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