April 29, 2017 -- In a strong but compassionate show of resolve against the opioid abuse epidemic plaguing the area, about 75 residents turned out last Wednesday evening at the high school library for a meeting of the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse (CASA), an organization that has been recently formed with a mission to change the culture and environment that contribute to alcohol and drug abuse, and which represents a collective response to several alcohol and opioid related tragedies involving young people in the North Shore area in recent years.
The meeting was presided over by Schools Superintendent Dr. Edward Melnick and NS CASA co-chairs Marty Glennon and Joanna Commander. And although school district officials have been instrumental in spearheading the group's formation, the organization is not an arm of the district, but one in which various constituencies within the community provide its foundation -- including parents, students, businesses, and service organizations and institutions, as well as the schools.
After brief introductions at the start, attendees were divided into groups representing those constituencies and quickly got to work.
The groups brainstormed approaches in how best to begin to address a problem that in the last year alone has seen 41 opioid overdoses in the area served by the North Shore School District. Although substance abuse overall is a serious issue, the most pressing concern, Schools Superintendent Ed Melnick said, relaying to each group a message from a police officer there from the Third Precinct's Problem Oriented Policing (POP) unit, is the opioid problem and advised that that be the focus of the discussions.
In one committee that represented various community groups and businesses, participants discussed ways of reaching out to young people and how best to get young people, neighbors, friends and loved ones to reach out for help.
One gentlemen, who lost his sister to a heroine overdose, said it was important to have young adults work with teens, as they can better relate to people closer to their age. “Sometimes kids don’t relate to the authority figures such as parents and teachers,” he said.
Another group member volunteered that it was important to maintain confidentiality when an individual or family member reached out for help.
Still another asserted that it was especially important to remove the stigma surrounding drug abuse, so that people would be more willing to seek help, and family members would be willing to reach out for help rather than trying to hide the problem.
It's about educating and empowering people in the community," another said. "Neighbors, friends and family need to feel they can speak up about what they see.
Still another agreed. "Kids," she said, "don't want to be rats. Kids need to learn that it's ok to be a rat."
After about 45 minutes of discussion, the committees reported back to the full assemblage.
The parent group emphasized the importance of being informed and educating themselves, investigating strategies that have worked in other communities, and identifying high drug traffic areas within the community to arm themselves with information that would help combat the problem.
The youth group reported that they had discussed ways of educating young people. They said that education needed to begin early in middle school, and that they had found fear a powerful motivator when they were younger and cited the successful anti-tobacco campaign that has significantly reduced teen smoking.
The school based group explained some of the efforts it has undertaken and discussed having speakers come into the schools. Starting next year in the 8th grade, the Proventure program will be introduced, which will test students for risk factors that point towards a propensity for substance abuse, which they said will better enable school professionals to take pre-emptive measures.
In putting an organizational structure in place, each of the groups designated two leaders and were encouraged to communicate with each other and meet individually as committees; and participants responded to a questionnaire indicating their skills and associations that could be useful in supporting the group's efforts moving forward.
"This was a terrific start." said Ms. Commander addressing the participants as the meeting neared its conclusion. "This is a challenge like we've never seen before and we're going to have to look at things we don't want to see. We really have to generate some new ideas on how to address this."
Mr. Glennon then urged the participants to gather for a group photograph.
"It'll send a message that there are many people behind this effort," he said. "And that's really important as we move forward."
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