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Few Pa. school districts sign up for free anti-drug program

| Monday, May 27, 2013, 11:22 p.m.

Sadness washes over Gary Tennis' face as he talks about the growing number of Pennsylvania children dying from overdoses of everything from street-grade heroin to painkillers snatched from their parents' medicine cabinets.

Some were good kids who made bad choices, he said.

Some wanted help but couldn't get it.

And some might have been saved if the right person with the right training had stepped in, said Tennis, a former Philadelphia prosecutor tapped last year to be the first state secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Tennis is frustrated because most Pennsylvania school districts ignored an offer extended to four states — Illinois, Ohio and Washington are the others — to participate in the first year of a free program proven to stem drug abuse in adolescents by providing teachers with specialized training.

Only 50 of Pennsylvania's 501 districts signed on to the program, Blueprints Life Skills Training, which pays the cost of hiring substitute middle and junior high school teachers while regular educators receive training to spot at-risk students and help them cope with adolescent pressures often linked to drug experimentation.

Fourteen of the participating schools are in Western Pennsylvania.

The program, administered by the University of Colorado and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, targets students at an age when they are most vulnerable, said Tennis, noting that more than 4,000 adolescents were admitted to substance abuse programs in Pennsylvania during the past year.

Though the drug problem appears to be spiraling out of control, Tennis said, it has been overshadowed recently by escalating violence in schools.

“I think right now, with the Sandy Hook shooting, districts are probably under siege on the issue of school security,” he said. “It's been difficult getting (drug prevention) sufficiently on the radar screen. ... We know that every year you delay has a huge impact on an individual's life trajectory into the future.”

He referred to a recent survey showing that 90 percent of adults with drug problems started using drugs before they were 18.

Tennis is baffled, particularly when it comes to Westmoreland County, where overdoses spiked in the past year and drug-related deaths of school-aged students prompted a string of community forums jammed with worried parents.

The Westmoreland County problem garnered attention from the Obama administration, which sent David Mineta, deputy director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, to a recent drug forum attended by 1,200 people.

Yet among 17 Westmoreland school districts, only Greater Latrobe signed up for the training program, records show.

Opting out

In Hempfield Area School District, one student died from a heroin overdose this year and a number of others were suspended or expelled for drug use, according to school officials.

But the district did not apply for the program, Superintendent Andy Leopold said. He added that Hempfield hasn't determined the overall direction of its drug-awareness efforts.

“I recall the name and some of the information,” he said. “I may have passed it on.”

Hempfield school director Randy Stoner, a proponent of drug-abuse education, said Leopold did not tell the board about the program.

Board President Sonya Brajdic said she hoped the administration was aware of the program and weighed the merits of participating. The district is trying to reach elementary school students through the St. Vincent Drug and Alcohol Education Program.

Pittsburgh Public Schools didn't sign up for the program because it has its own drug programs, spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

Likewise, Norwin School District chose not to join because it provides drug and alcohol awareness through the St. Vincent program and a program sponsored by the Norwin Lions Club, spokesman Jonathan Szish said.

‘An age of high risk'

Some districts fully embraced the program.

Riverview School District administrators said they applied because they believe it will offer students skills to succeed now and in the future.

“It ... provides students with vital skills necessary to make them successful, lifelong learners: self-image and self-improvement, making decisions, goal setting, study skills, building healthy relationships and communication,” said Tiffany Nix, Riverview assistant principal.

The district plans to develop a course for seventh-graders that incorporates art, music, dance, writing and teamwork, Nix said.

“This is a transition age. It's an age of high risk. The middle school population — sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — want to fit in, be accepted,” said Tim Phillips, director of prevention services for Westmoreland County Community Action. “Their brains are wired for risky behavior.”

Greater Latrobe Superintendent Judith Swigart said teachers will begin training this summer for the program with the aim of influencing seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, who typically respond to peer influence.

“They need to learn how to make good decisions. This is the age group where they're really learning and testing,” she said.

Swigart said the program will be implemented in junior high health classes.

“(Drug abuse) is a public health crisis,” Phillips said. “It's a public health emergency.”

Richard Gazarik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at

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