After educating high school and middle school students, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and Office of Drug Control Policy are turning their focus to even younger students in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
A Maryland Behavioral Youth Study has shown that youth as young as sixth grade are starting to be introduced to the drug culture, said Sgt. Aaron Penman, who is spearheading the Pledge Program.
In a recent study, 4.3 percent of sixth-graders reported using marijuana in the last 30 days, he said.
“At that point, that’s when process starts. We thought we need to get start getting to kids and having that conversation with them in a controlled environment before they get to that sixth grade level,” Penman said. “We want to provide them with the foundational education on the dangers of drugs and give them the ability to deal with family, friends, peer press if they come into a situation, and the coping skills to deal with that peer pressure to say no.”
The Sheriff’s Office and Office of Drug Control Policy are launching The Pledge Program, a four-week program geared toward elementary school students ages 8 to 11 years old. Law enforcement, prevention specialists and medical personnel will use age-appropriate information to educate students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
“We know how easy it is to make a mistake one single time and how strong that addiction to opiates is,” Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said. “That one ‘no’ might be difference between life and death.”
As of Monday, 499 people had overdosed on heroin or other opioids in 2018 — 82 of those overdoses were fatal, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics.
The agency is still waiting on December numbers from Upper Chesapeake Health and reports of any overdoses from Monday before tabulating final 2018 numbers.
In 2017, 451 people overdosed in Harford, 82 of them were fatal.
The first series of Pledge Program classes will begin next week at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston and run four consecutive Tuesdays this month from 4 to 5:30 p.m. As of Wednesday, seven places remained in this first session.
At the end of the four weeks, students will sign a pledge to be drug-free and receive a certificate and pledge coin.
“It’s something tangible the kids can hold on to for life and their parents can remind them, you took this pledge, you got this challenge coin and we need to make sure you stay vigilant on saying no,” said Penman, who is supervisor of the Sheriff’s Office community policing unit.
After the pilot, the Sheriff’s Office will look at feedback and determine where the program goes next.
Like the Hope House, a tool to educate parents on early warning indicators if their kids start to experiment with drugs, the Pledge Program was born out of the sheriff’s HOPE Group (Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort).
One of things community policing deputies hear repeatedly from parents is how early is it to have conversations with their kids about drugs, and how do they have the conversation, Penman said.
“Looking within ourselves, we had nothing in place for kids,” he said.
The initial classes will include discussions on drug awareness and how drugs affect the bodies of 8- to 11-year-olds and the dangers of drugs, led by Dr. Roy Phillips. Counselors will discuss situations children could be put in.
Participants will also be put into role-playing scenarios in which they may encounter drugs, Penman said, so they can learn how to say no.
“It would give them something to fall back on in the event that, though hopefully not, in the future they’re in that situation,” Penman said. “It’s easy to sit there and tell somebody what to say, but once they actually go through those motions, it’s easier for them to deal with those influences and those peer pressures.”
Also like the Hope House, which has been visited 2,500 times, the Pledge Program is unique in the state.
“We’ve led the state in many innovative efforts, thinking outside the box, not being constrained by traditional police territory,” Gahler said. “I’ve always said I’m not afraid to try something. If turns out to not work, you back up and try again, take lessons learned and make those changes.”
It will be years before the Sheriff’s Office and Office of Drug Control Policy and all the other partners in the fight against the opioid epidemic have been successful.
“Something like this, you’re not going to know probably for years if you’re having and impact,” Gahler said. “Those young people who are getting message have to grow up and are hopefully getting skill set and fortitude to say no and not become another number on our board out there.”