Pubdate: Thu, 13 Jun 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Dan Levin


MINFORD, Ohio - Inside an elementary school classroom decorated with
colorful floor mats, art supplies and building blocks, a little boy
named Riley talked quietly with a teacher about how he had watched his
mother take "knockout pills" and had seen his father shoot up "a
thousand times."

Riley, who is 9 years old, described how he had often been left alone
to care for his baby brother while his parents were somewhere else
getting high. Beginning when he was about 5, he would heat up meals of
fries, chicken nuggets and spaghetti rings in the microwave for
himself and his brother, he said. "That was all I knew how to make,"
Riley said.

Riley - who is in foster care and who officials asked not be fully
identified because of his age - is among hundreds of students enrolled
in the local school district who have witnessed drug use at home. Like
many of his classmates at Minford Elementary School, Riley struggles
with behavioral and psychological problems that make it difficult to
focus, school officials said, let alone absorb lessons.

"If you're worried about your parents getting arrested last night, you
can't retain information," said Kendra Rase Cram, a teacher at Minford
Elementary who was hired this past academic year to teach students how
to cope with trauma. Over the past nine months, she led several
classes a day, and met every week in one-on-one sessions with up to 20
students who have experienced significant trauma.

Indeed, the classroom is becoming the battleground in the war against
drug addiction where the next generation will be saved or lost in
Ohio, which in 2017 had the second highest rate of opioid overdose
deaths in the country.

Earlier this year, Gov. Mike DeWine proposed $550 million in student
wellness funding for schools like Minford Elementary, including a drug
prevention curriculum that focuses on "social and emotional" learning
- - exercises intended to teach students how to cope with the
consequences of an opioid epidemic that has ravaged their community
and shows no signs of abating.

In Minford, the toll has been exacting: Last academic year, four
kindergartners lost parents to fatal overdoses and a fifth had a
parent killed in a drug-related homicide. Some of the children were in
the same room with their parents when they died.

"We have all these kids who are in survival mode," Ms. Cram

Minford Elementary is not like typical schools. At this small campus
in rural southern Ohio, there is a dedicated sensory room stocked with
weighted blankets, chewable toys and exercise balls. Children who were
born dependent on drugs, as well as others with special needs, can
take time to jump on a trampoline or calm down in a play tunnel,
sometimes several times each day. In class, students role-play in
lessons on self-control, such as blowing bubbles and then waiting to
pop them, and anger management, while also learning calming strategies
like deep breathing techniques.

The roads leading to Minford, in Scioto County, wind past picturesque
horse farms and cow pastures dotted with decaying barns, run-down
trailers and a sign that declares "Jesus saves." But the pastoral
landscape belies a devastated community. In this county, long
considered ground zero in Ohio's opioid epidemic, nearly 9.7 million
pills were prescribed in 2010 - enough to give 123 to each resident,
the highest rate in the state, according to official statistics. Over
the years, as opioid prescriptions have fallen, many drug users have
moved on to heroin and fentanyl.

Today, more babies are born in Scioto County suffering from the opioid
withdrawal condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome than
anywhere else in the state. In Minford, the town's school district is
in many ways on the front lines of the crisis, the effects of which
began appearing in classrooms about a decade ago, said Marin
Applegate, a psychologist for the Minford school district.

"My preschool teachers just started screaming, 'We have these kids,
their behavior is off the wall and none of the traditional measures
are working,'" said Ms. Applegate, who at the time worked with the
state's Department of Education. As drug users shifted from
painkillers to heroin, and then to fentanyl, the county's schools
struggled to handle the fallout from parental addiction and abject

Half of the students in the Minford school district qualify for free
or reduced lunch, and around 300 - about 20 percent of the student
population - have learning disabilities and emotional problems, a
growing number of which are linked to parental addiction, several
educators said. The district, which includes a single campus for all
grades K-12, also serves three group foster homes, each with sometimes
more than 10 children who were taken into state custody because they
had been severely abused.

"They've been raped, molested, tied up, awful things," said Ms.
Applegate, who is also the district's special education director.

In an interview, Governor DeWine said that Ohio had recognized that
dealing with the crisis required a long-term educational strategy
geared toward addressing childhood traumas, not just improving grades.
His ambitious proposal follows a push last year to expand the social
and emotional learning program through 12th grade, with statewide
curriculum standards set for approval this summer.

"You've got mental health problems running directly into addiction and
poverty," he said. "The whole goal is to break the cycle."

Students at Minford Elementary have endured a range of abuse and
neglect, county and school officials said. Some children have worn the
same clothes for several consecutive days, and some have arrived on
campus covered in bedbug bites. Parents have shown up after school
high on heroin, school officials said, or have forgotten to pick up
their children at all. In play-therapy sessions, some young students
have drawn pictures of people cooking meth.

Every morning, their teachers ask: "How do you feel

Each child in kindergarten through third grade responds by picking a
color that symbolizes an emotion: red for angry, yellow for nervous,
blue for sad, green for happy. Troubled, nervous students can opt for
yoga or a calming walk, or they can place their anxieties in a mental
"worry box."

In class, teachers say the traumatic experiences manifest in acts of
physical aggression, emotional meltdowns and children unable to focus
their gaze.

"Some students look as if they're on meth," said Ryan McGraw, the
principal at Minford Elementary. "I've physically taken a kid's head
and said, 'I need your eyes.'"

Over the years, educators said, many students have suffered quietly.
One teenage boy, Chris Hampton, afraid he would be harmed if he said
anything at school about his home life, finally confided in 2016 to a
guidance counselor that his mother's boyfriend regularly assaulted him
and his brother. The boy and his mother agreed to tell their story.

"I was sick of it," said Chris, 14, a rosy-cheeked eighth grader whose
mother has now been sober for two years.

After school one recent evening, Chris and his brother, who is two
years younger, said they had endured years of abuse when they lived
with their mother, Shandy Brown, inside a barn that concealed a meth
lab. At the time, she struggled with a drug addiction, and her
boyfriend would regularly force the brothers to kneel for hours with
their hands behind their heads, according to Chris, Ms. Brown and
court officials.

"Sometimes I'd lean my head against the wall," Chris said. "Mostly I'd
just cry."

His mother recently became a sheriff's deputy, and the family is now
thriving in its new life. But for a long while, Chris said, he carried
deep emotional scars.

In January 2017, according to court officials and Chris's mother, the
former boyfriend violated a restraining order that she had filed
against him. Chris, fearing that the family would never escape the
man's clutches, threatened to kill himself, he said. He was placed in
a psychiatric ward for more than a week.

"I turned 12 the day they let me out," he said.

Some Minford Elementary students are so young that they only know
families devastated by addiction. After Riley's parents were arrested
on charges of heroin trafficking in 2017, Riley suffered caffeine
withdrawal - a result of having drunk more than a dozen cans of soda
every day, said Mr. McGraw, the principal. Mr. McGraw, a father of
three, fostered Riley and his brother for 11 months until relatives
could take them.

Since then, Riley has fallen in love with reading, and especially
loves the Harry Potter books. He said he can relate to the boy wizard
who had a tough childhood. "We're similar," he said. "It made me happy
that Harry knows how it feels."

A first grader named Grant represents both the challenge Minford faces
and the success it hopes to achieve through its emphasis on
"social-emotional" learning. The boy's grandfather was high on heroin
during a recent parent-teacher conference, educators said, and in
January, the authorities said his mother was arrested on a drug
possession charge in the school's parking lot. That same day,
according to court officials, his father was also arrested.

"Grandma's also an addict and we couldn't call any other relatives
because they're either on drugs or probation," Mr. McGraw said. "The
kid had no clue, he's 6 years old, and we're supposed to teach him how
to read?"

Grant, who is in foster care and who officials asked not be fully
identified, is among the roughly 20 students with significant trauma
who participate in regular one-on-one sessions with Ms. Cram. On a
recent morning, he took a seat on the floor of her classroom, which
was decorated with a zebra-print beanbag chair and a Mason jar filled
with water and pink glitter that students can shake when they need to
feel calm.

As they began playing with wooden blocks, Ms. Cram gently prodded
Grant to share what he went through with his parents and how he was
adjusting to his foster home. "He doesn't have anywhere else to talk
about uncomfortable things," she said when he was out of earshot.

Equal parts therapist and detective, Ms. Cram recalled when Grant told
her how his parents had given him a "brown powder," which had to be
removed from his body by a doctor. As Grant built a skateboard ramp
for his toy dinosaur, Ms. Cram asked him how the powder had made him

A long pause, and then in a tiny voice, "It made me have a headache
for a very long time."

Talking about his parents, who were in jail, upset Grant. Ms. Cram
switched gears, and handed him the emotional color chart. He picked
yellow, for nervous. "I'm feeling a little worried," he said.

"What can we do to feel better today?" Ms. Cram asked.

Grant smiled. "Take deep breaths," he said.

Then he began to inhale and exhale slowly, tracing his right hand with
his left index finger at a pace that matched his breathing.

"That felt really good," he said, once he had finished.

It was just as Ms. Cram had taught him, and that gives her hope for
Minford's future.

"We all know we have a problem," she said, "but there weren't
solutions. Finally people are rolling up their sleeves and doing
something about it."

Dan Levin covers American youth for the National Desk. He was a
foreign correspondent covering Canada from 2016 until 2018. From 2008
to 2015, Mr. Levin was based in Beijing, where he reported on human
rights, politics and culture in China and Asia.  ---
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