The program was developed by Kevin Lorson, a health and physical education professor at Wright State University in Dayton and a team of educators with a grant from the Ohio Department of Higher Education, fulfilling a law the Ohio legislature passed in 2014 requiring schools to teach the connection between prescription opioid abuse and heroin addiction.
Belpre, a town of 6,500 in southeastern Ohio, began a pilot of the Health and Opioid Prevention Education (HOPE) program this year. Belpre Elementary Principal Joy Edgell said kindergarten safety lessons used to focus on things like "stranger danger," but had shortcomings that illustrated the need for earlier education. Three years ago a first-grader brought a heroin needle to school in her backpack, Edgell said. The child said her father had used the needle, and she brought it to school to keep her younger sibling from stepping on it. Teachers have been seeing signs that drug abuse was hurting children in recent years: "More kindergartners exhibited trouble regulating emotions and outbursts. In some cases, grandparents and other relatives served as primary caregivers, stepping in because a parent was struggling with addiction," Vander Schaaff reports. "And in 2015, Hunter Burkey, a popular senior at Belpre High School, died of a heroin overdose."
The main goal of the HOPE program is to help children understand how to make healthy choices from an early age, and to impress upon them the importance of never taking or touching medicine unless a trusted adult tells them to. "The lessons have helped illuminate complicated home lives," Vander Schaaff reports. "Fourth-graders doing a role-playing exercise to practice standing up for themselves and refusing drugs wanted to make sure the teacher knew a parent 'was still a good person' even if he or she had trouble with addiction."
Other communities may choose to implement the HOPE program, but Ohio prizes local control of education, and is the only state in the nation that prohibits the state Board of Education from establishing statewide health-education standards. Efforts to create statewide standards have faced opposition from conservatives who worry such standards would weaken the state's abstinence-only approach to sex education, Vander Schaaff reports.