Schools feeling effects of opioid crisis

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BRATTLEBORO — School administrators are seeing the effects of the opioid crisis up close and personal.

"Clearly, the system is broken," Academy School Principal Andy Paciulli told the Brattleboro Town School Board at a meeting earlier this month after describing a week of disturbing incidents that led to investigations by the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

One student came to school with a needle filled with heroin. "It was inadvertently left by an adult," said Paciulli.

Two "very young" students could have been violated by a man on the registered sex offender list, he said. The man was babysitting them.

Three kids were removed from a home after they were found to be living in "squalor" with no food, Paciulli said. DCF puts a priority on reuniting families, he added later.

Paciulli said cases like these are happening with great frequency in Brattleboro schools.

"These are severe but we deal with levels like this almost daily," he said. "This was in one week's time. I know in each of the schools, this is what's going on. In every single case, drug addiction plays a significant role. It's not an excuse but it certainly plays a significant role."

Being instructional leaders and doing fun things with the kids, he said, "gets pushed to the side a bit because we have to deal with this on a regular basis."

The stories came as no shock to Green Street School Principal Mark Speno. That same week, he said, two children were removed from a residence where "a boyfriend was busted for 3,500 bags of heroin, a loaded gun, a lot of cash, crack and cocaine in the closet of their home."

Oak Grove Principal Jeri Curry said school officials are now trained to be informed and sensitive to trauma.

"That's work I'm sure none of us did five years ago," she said, noting that programming is in place to help students in families struggling with addiction.

A social worker position at Academy School is now funded by the Brattleboro Town School District after annual Representative Town Meeting in March. A grant paid for such work last year.

Social worker Jody Mattulke is charged with creating a safe environment and trust within the school community. She trains staff to recognize sexual abuse and harassment. She provides support to students experiencing trauma. She works with foster and surrogate families. She also refers families to services and programs.

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Lyle Holiday told the

Reformer the social worker can help students "with everything from medical appointments, accessing community services, to families being more involved at school."

"I only see this need increasing as more families struggle," she said. "We have incredible needs due to the opiate issues in the area."

Holiday said nurses, counselors and classroom teachers work every day to provide what students need while professional development prepares teachers for helping kids. But a social worker is trained to work with families at home and connect them with additional resources.

School Board members plan to discuss the impact of the opiate crisis and the plan moving forward as next year's Town Meeting nears.

"I understood in a general way, there's a lot of things these kids are dealing with so this is really important and necessary work," said Robin Morgan, board member, who attended meetings where the topic came up before joining the board. "But the terrifying-ness of what's going on, I think, is much more severe than what I even understood from those meetings."

Morgan said she hopes "there's more we can do than spread word about how bad it is."

"I feel what you shared should be shared loudly and more often, and with the town and the state," Jill Stahl Tyler, board chairwoman, told the principals.

Paciulli said he testified at the Statehouse on the issue.

'Amazing opportunities'

"We offer amazing opportunities for our kids," Speno, the Green Street principal, told the board. "I'm really proud of Brattleboro schools."

Earlier in the meeting, administrators spoke of programming benefiting the schools.

Academy School Assistant Principal Kelly Dias said a workshop about Eureka Math had a high turnout of parents.

"I think it was well received and we got some good feedback," she said. "We hope to continue in the spring when we do family breakfast, to do outreach."

Information on how parents can support their kids with the new curricula can be found at greatminds.org/math/parents.

Dias said second and third graders have been working really hard on Miss Twiggley's Tree, an approximately 20-minute play.

A fundraiser, Dining for a Cause, saw 15 percent of proceeds from an evening going to the school. Participating restaurants included 99 Restaurant & Pub and Ramunto's Brick Oven Pizza of Brattleboro. On Dec. 13, Brattleburger will host.

Dias told the board about recent professional development workshops, as did Speno at Green Street.

Speno reported a big return in surveys: 100 out of 150 families filled them out. This is the third year the surveys were handed out at parent-teacher conferences.

"One thing we added this year was a raffle," Speno said. "So each family that filled out a survey also filled out a raffle ticket."

Speno said he thinks about 99 percent of students felt there is at least one adult they could trust at the school.

Fifth and sixth graders from Oak Grove participated in activities about social justice, Curry said. A set of family pancake breakfasts was "very well received."

"Both days, we fed over 85 students and over 40 adults," said Curry.

Curriculum Night at her school will also be about Eureka Math. Harvest Dinner will see kids cooking with ingredients from the school garden. It is also a family potluck.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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