Local authorities, Akron schools administrators and top-ranking state and city officials came together at Buchtel Community Learning Center Tuesday to kick off the state’s “Start Talking” program.
The campaign’s goal is to raise awareness about the “public health epidemic” of prescription opioid and heroin abuse, which accounted for a deadly overdose once every five hours in Ohio in 2011.
The program dovetails efforts presented Monday in Gov. John Kasich’s State of the State Address in Medina.
Kasich said his office, the legislature and the attorney general have shut down pill mills across Ohio, but the next step is to deal with the demand.
“This is in every neighborhood,” he said. “Minority communities were dealing with it alone for a long time. It knows no race. It knows no demographics. We need to build courage and strength in people to say, ‘No.’?”
For schools, it is indeed no longer an inner-city problem.
Along with former NFL player Deryck Toles, who grew up a victim of his parents’ drug use, two parents came forward Tuesday. One spoke of his son, a “strong” and “fast” athlete from Jackson High School who died 11 months after receiving his first pain killer from a friend.
“Dustin was a good boy,” Dale Batdorff said of his 21-year-old son, who died in 2011. “He never experienced drug dealing outside of school. He never saw a drug deal going down on the corner of the street. We live in Jackson Township. This evil thing reached into my home and grabbed onto my son and did not let him go until he was dead. It knows no address ... It doesn’t care. This evil thing will just destroy anything it touches.
“We have to start talking.”
Dick Ross, Ohio superintendent of public instruction, commended Akron schools and board president Lisa Mansfield for being the first to adopt the statewide effort, and for bringing addiction to the forefront.
From an education perspective, Ross said, addiction, whether by student or family, deprives children of an opportunity.
“Any blockage for a student to be successful in school and moving on through careers and jobs and being good citizens, it’s something we have to look at,” he said. “It’s almost very insidious what happens.”
Kasich said Monday that the Start Talking program, launched a month ago, has reached 9,000 students in the state and created 207 student ambassadors. He called on legislators to talk to their principals and superintendents about embracing the program for their own schools.
Ross echoed Kasich, citing statistics that show talking to kids about drugs cut the chance of use in half.
If that conversation is initiated by peers, the message could carry even more weight.
That’s the goal of the program: to encourage student athletes and peers to be good role models, to share harrowing stories of addiction and to encourage the community to participate in the dialogue. More information can be found online at StartTalking.Ohio.Gov.
Along with program adoption, Akron schools have applied for a $1 million grant, developed by the governor and Ohio’s First Lady Karen W. Kasich. The money would be used to train additional drug intervention staff, said Dan Rambler, director of Student Support Services.
The program launch was attended by Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, Carmen Ingram of the Summit County Sheriff’s Drug Unit, Tracy J. Plouck with the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services and James Nice, Akron’s police chief.
Nice voiced frustration about lax laws that he said allow convicted heroin and opiate dealers, who sell small but lethal quantities, to not serve mandatory jail sentences.
Nice said, “Most of the work that Akron Police Department is involved in is the result of drugs.”
He praised the state and local focus on encouraging meaningful conversations with minors, nipping the problem in the bud before it leads to another criminal incident.
For Nice, though, it’s an issue his officers are constantly “mopping up.”
In morning staff meetings on Monday and Tuesday this week, Nice said his staff informed him of two lethal drug overdoses in the city. He followed the somber declaration by announcing that the Akron Police Department is bidding for two more positions to combat addiction: an investigator who would follow up on methamphetamine busts (no county in Ohio registers more than Summit) and another who would trace heroin and illegal opiate sales back to the dealer.
“People need to be responsible for selling heroin,” he said.
Beacon Journal staff writer Stephanie Warsmith contributed to this report. Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.