Teachers Are Serving As First Responders To The Opioid Crisis

(HUFFINGTON POST) November 3, 2018 — Middle school teacher Greg Cruey can explain the most harrowing details of his students’ lives with matter-of-fact precision.

That smart sixth-grader who had her hand raised last period? She’s homeless and has, in the past, been suicidal. That middle school student who seemed on edge during class? As a young child, his parents used him to make pornography; they needed the money for their drug addictions. That sassy eighth-grader with the long hair? Her mom just got out of jail and seems to be allowing her to smoke pot in the house.

Many of these details are ones that, after 15 years in the classroom, Cruey has learned to pick up on, through careful tracking: what students are wearing, hunger levels and emotional states. But sometimes students will offer up these deeply personal details after class with shrugs, as if it’s information as casual as what they ate for lunch. When Cruey still has questions, he will glean information through listening to the constant murmur of student gossip in hallways, tracking social media posts and keeping his ear to the ground at church.

It’s Cruey’s job to keep track of these particulars, even more than lesson planning or standardized test preparation.

“My job as a teacher is to be a first responder to poverty,” said Cruey, a 58-year-old middle school social studies teacher at Southside K-8 school. “If my students learn other stuff, too, that’s great.”

Cruey’s school, in War, West Virginia, in McDowell County, has long been held up as a living example of how poverty can limit educational attainment. So when the opioid crisis hit, it hit McDowell County particularly hard. In 2014, the county led the state in opioid-related hospitalizations. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked McDowell County as second-most at-risk in the country for an HIV outbreak due to intravenous drug use.

It’s why, over the course of Cruey’s years in the classroom, he has become used to stories of families torn apart over drugs, as parents and guardians shuffle between hospitals and jails. He cites estimates that nearly half of students live with someone other than their parents. Others are being raised by grandparents, relatives, friends and foster parents.

In War, atypical family structures are the norm.

Nelson Spencer, who retired last month as superintendent of McDowell schools, said that in some of the county’s schools, as many as 40 percent of students don’t live with their parents. And though many of these arrangements are informal, with students casually bouncing between the homes of family members and friends, West Virginia has seen a spike in foster care entrances compared with the U.S. average. In 2016, there were 1,221 foster care entrances per 100,000 youth, compared with the U.S. average of 369.