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Education aimed at substance abuse prevention, awareness

Brittney Sabock didn't take her first drink of alcohol or smoke pot until she was 17. Before that she had good grades, played softball and aspired to become a nurse.

By the time she graduated North Carroll High School later that year, Sabock, now 24, said she was smoking crack and shooting heroin, spiraling into full-fledged addiction.

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"Heroin took every aspiration and dream I had away from me," said Sabock, who is enrolled in a 12-step recovery program and lives in a recovery house.

An increased number of heroin-related and prescription opioid-related overdoses and deaths has prompted state and county public health officials to increase education efforts aimed at prevention and awareness.

In May, the Maryland Department of Mental Health and Mental Hygiene, or DHMH, released 2014 overdose statistics, which show a 21 percent increase in fatal overdoses over the previous year, following executive orders signed by Gov. Larry Hogan establishing two work groups to examine what the state calls a "growing heroin and opioid crisis."

"We have certainly stepped up our efforts, particularly along the lines of overdose prevention," said Christopher Garrett, a spokesman for the DHMH. "The efforts are certainly aimed at everybody; we certainly don't want kids using drugs or adults using drugs, who serve as models for children."

But in Carroll County, that push began in 2012 when public health officials saw an increase in the number of drug treatment cases.

The Carroll County Health Department had "been watching those numbers creep up before the state intervened," said Sue Doyle, director of the bureau of addiction treatment services at the health department. "We had already been stepping up our education efforts."

The number of heroin-related and prescription opioid-related emergency department visits in Carroll rose steadily from 26 in 2008 to 108 in 2014, according to a September 2015 DHMH report on drug- and alcohol-related emergency room visits.

Because the cycle of addiction is difficult to break once it starts, it is important to prevent substance abuse early on, said Linda Auerback, substance abuse prevention supervisor at the Carroll health department.

"It only takes seven seconds to make a choice that could change your life," Auerback said.

County drug prevention programs focus on providing children with sound decision-making skills, Auerback said.

"All kids are good but [if] they make a bad choice — we have these things in place to get them back on the right track before the addictive state starts," Auerback said. "When you're a young person, the chances of becoming an addict are just tremendously high."

The Carroll health department provides outreach to public schools, local colleges and members of the community, Auerback said.

"You need to catch it before it all starts — it's really difficult to break the cycle of addiction; it's a lifelong disease," Auerback said.

Sabock can attest to that.

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"It's something that I have to live with for the rest of my life," she said.

In schools

In Carroll County Public Schools, substance abuse education is incorporated into the health curriculum, in accordance with national and state standards. Every student in kindergarten through eighth grade has a health class with a drug unit, said Dawn Rathgeber, CCPS assistant supervisor of health education.

Courses incorporate information on drug and alcohol abuse that is "age appropriate," focusing on decision-making and self-advocacy skills, Rathgeber said.

High-school students are required to take a health course, which also includes a drug unit, in ninth or 10th grade for graduation, Rathgeber said. Students can also take electives in Health II and Honors Health III.

The school system has developed partnerships with different county agencies, such as the health department and local police departments, to educate students about substance abuse. Resource officers from the Carroll County Sheriff's Office provide instruction to students throughout the county, and officers from different law enforcement agencies periodically do safety checks, Rathgeber said.

Worthington Washington, master deputy at the Sheriff's Office, provides substance abuse education at schools throughout the county. Washington said the majority of kids listen to what police officers tell them about the consequences of substance abuse.

"But there will always be a percentage of them who will go out there and do something wrong," Washington said. "You just have to keep telling them and keeping trying to get it in their brain about how it's going to affect their future."

Representatives from the county health department also provide programs to supplement school curriculum, according to Amy Laugelli, substance abuse prevention coordinator for the health department. For example, in high schools the health department provides programs on current drug trends, dispeling myths and providing facts to students about drugs and addiction, Laugelli said.

Beth Schmidt, whose son Sean died of a drug overdose at the age of 23 in 2013, has been advocating since 2014 for more education in Carroll County about heroin and opioid abuse. Her son, a graduate of Liberty High School, was initially addicted to prescription opioids before developing a heroin addiction.

Schmidt, a founding member who sits on the board of directors of the Carroll County chapter of the Maryland Heroin Awareness Advocates, said drug prevention education taught in the regular health curriculum wasn't providing enough information about heroin and opioid prescription abuse.

"Education is the only way for prevention and prevention is the only way to stop this horrible epidemic," Schmidt said.

New initiatives

But a new effort provided by the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office in partnership with Carroll County Public Schools educating 11th- and 12th-grade students about substance abuse and addiction is making a difference, Schmidt believes.

Since October, members of the State's Attorney's Office and addiction recovery advocates have been holding assemblies at high schools throughout the county to show students the negative impacts that drugs can have on their lives. Part of the program involves young people, like Sabock, who struggle with addiction to share their stories.

The assemblies are also conducted in combination with a drug awareness poster program. One winner at each school is selected to receive a $250 prize. At the end of the year, the winner from each year will be entered in a countywide contest for the opportunity to win $1,000. Carroll County State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo said his plan is to use student work from the poster competition as a way to elevate drug awareness and prevention. The program is funded using drug forfeiture money.

"It really is a way to invest in preventing the people that are overdosing and committing crimes a couple of years from now," DeLeonardo said.

Rathgeber, CCPS assistant supervisor of health education, said that as a result of the program the school system has had numerous referrals and a couple of interventions to help students with an addiction problem to get help they need.

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"We're looking at possibly expanding it to next year to start earlier in eighth grade in middle school," Rathgeber said.

DeLeonardo said his office would like to continue the program to reinforce a message to students that the decisions they make at their age will put them on a certain path, which could lead them in the wrong direction.

"The drug will always change. It may be heroin for a while, it may be crack cocaine for a while, but the reality is that addiction doesn't change, so what we really have to do is to battle the addiction mentality," DeLeonardo said. "It was pills for a while. That's the kind of thing where you have to be in the schools constantly, you have to keep reinforcing that message, and I think that's what we're doing."

Board of Education member Devon Rothschild, who has attended some of the assemblies, said she is grateful for the program.

"I think that [the] program is so effective because it's so raw and so personal, and shows kids that it can really happen to anybody," she said.

While efforts are concentrated on educating youth and young adults who are still developing, it is also important to raise awareness among parents, Auerback said.

"Parent involvement is really crucial," she said. "All children are going to be at a crossroads at some point … if parents have the right tools, they can help guide them on the right path to make decisions."

In May, Carrolltowne Elementary School's Parent Teacher Association hosted a forum about substance abuse, Internet safety, and cyberbullying, bringing local agencies and advocates together to inform parents that substance abuse can begin before high school.

The meeting was coordinated by Carrolltowne parent Michele Rogers, who wanted to share information about those issues with others in the community.

Although a CCPS report on substance abuse of school-age youth presented in March indicated that school-related alcohol and drug infractions had declined among middle and high schools students between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 school years, Auerback said those numbers don't reflect the reality of the situation.

"I think we need to not be naive about it," she said. "They are using — it's just not on school property."

Jon Kelvey contributed to this story.

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