Brick police officers noticed something when they started interviewing drug overdose victims in 2019 — they needed to do more to reach students than just one or two drug prevention classes.
And so the department decided to “get real” with the youth in town: by developing an intensive drug prevention curriculum aimed at students in fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th grades.
“We’re going to have a little more of a real conversation in seventh grade, a little bit more of a real conversation in ninth grade and then by junior year it’s as real as it gets,” Sgt. Jim Kelly said.
These interviews were part of a new initiative called Because We Care, in which officers from the community policing unit and a representative from the Ocean County Health Department started visiting homes of victims after an overdose to better understand their experience and struggles.
”A lot of these people who were overdosing, they either didn’t have any drug awareness program or the only thing that they had was fifth grade DARE,” Kelly said.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education, commonly known as DARE, is a nationwide program that brings drug prevention courses taught by law enforcement officers to schools. Until recently, Brick Public Schools only offered a DARE class to fifth graders.
What police learned in talking to victims is that those in their 40s and 50s had no formal drug education, while younger residents remembered having the one class in fifth grade, Kelly added.
Drug abuse remains a stubborn problem in the town, as well as the state.
Overdoses in the township in 2020 totaled 150, with 91 Narcan deployments and 18 overdose deaths, the highest levels since the downtrend in overdoses that started in 2017.
By the end of November, Brick police reported 88 opioid-related overdoses, 56 Narcan revivals and 11 deaths for 2021.
To combat the problem, a new course called “Not Even Once,” which features former addicts talking directly with students, was added to the program in 2018.
Patrolman Sean Flynn, who teaches the course, said the Not Even Once program has gotten students to speak up about their addiction to opioids and other drugs and police have been able to pair them with a social worker who helps them start a recovery process.
“We usually get at least one kid in every class that comes to us after and says that they need help,” Flynn said.
As a result, the police department wanted to do more to further educate the students about drug abuse prevention.
After a basic DARE course in fifth grade that introduces the kids to the dangers of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and tobacco alternatives, students will take an extension of DARE in seventh grade that focuses solely on alcohol and tobacco-related products.
High school freshman will then have an intensive course on binge drinking, a common habit for many high school students, according to Kimberly Reilly, alcohol and drug abuse unit coordinator for the Ocean County Health Department. The class also will include units on vaping and nonintoxicating cannabinoid found in cannabis — CBD — products.
Finally in junior year of high school, students will participate in the Not Even Once program, an intensive three-day course that teaches about heroin and fentanyl.
Inspired by the Manchester Police Department’s preexisting program, it was implemented in Brick for seniors in 2018, but moved to 11th grade a year later after the program’s organizers realized senior year was too late to help students who were already struggling with drug abuse.
In this class, the school resource officer shows videos of young people speaking about their addiction from a jail cell and parents being interviewed about their experience losing a child to opioid abuse.
On the final day of the class, a former opioid abuser visits the students, and the police officer leaves the room while the guest speaker gives an account of their experience and takes questions from the students.
“It’s a real in-your-face shocker for these kids,” Flynn said. “Law enforcement will actually leave the room and it becomes a wide-open discussion with the guest speaker. It gives them the freedom to speak freely.”
Both the seventh- and ninth-grade programs will be launched during the 2022-2023 school year.
The ninth-grade classes are part of a program at the Ocean County Health Department offered to all public and private schools in Ocean County at various grade levels.
Known as “Hashtag Drug Code,” the program was created to cater to the needs of students in Ocean County.
“It’s broken into multiple components that are relatable to Ocean County youth – we looked at Ocean County trends, Ocean County data, the information that the teens were telling us about what they were seeing in the classroom and in their neighborhoods and we’re educating them on things they might actually be experiencing at home and in the schools,” said Reilly, who runs the program.
Over time, it will change to keep up with any trends that might be occurring throughout the county.
“Over the years we’ve been doing it, it has changed – from marijuana use, to electronic nicotine products, vaping, heroin, fentanyl – we really just try to keep it current,” Reilly said.
The health department also makes the age appropriateness of the material their top priority.
“I think education is important,” Reilly said. “Being able to provide real facts about what these products are and what these drugs are in an age appropriate way is our goal,” Reilly said.
The police department is hoping the enhanced drug prevention program eventually helps combat the problem of opioid-related overdoses and deaths in Brick, which shot up to the highest numbers since 2016 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The overdose epidemic does affect Brick and that’s one of the reasons why we’re working with other agencies to have a comprehensive approach to addressing this issue that is frankly just wreaking havoc on our communities,” Kelly said.
Students, parents and school officials have reacted well to the new classes.
“It’s great that the police department comes up with these ideas and then works with our educators to make sure that they’re reaching the kids at appropriate ages and presenting the material in a way that is age appropriate,” said Brick School Board President Stephanie Wohlrab.
While Brick Public Schools only had a fifth-grade level class until about five years ago, Wohlrab said it is a success that the department recognized the need for more education.
“You can only make it better and the fact that it was recognized that there were additional programs needed, that’s a win,” she said.
Kelly said he’s hoping the additional courses will have an impact on the township’s youth.
“Every other year, they’ll be having some type of drug prevention awareness, with each iteration of the program being tailored to more mature audience,” Kelly said. “Then I’ll feel like everyone who grows up in Brick is receiving a solid education on drug awareness and prevention.”
Nicolas Fernandes is the early morning breaking news reporter. A lifelong New Jersey resident, he has previously worked as a features writer and sports reporter. Contact him at 732-540-4401 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Brick Police Department starts in-depth drug education program