MINFORD, Ohio — Inside an elementary school classroom decorated with colorful floor mats, art supplies and building blocks, a little boy named Riley talked quietly with a teacher about how he had watched his mother take “knockout pills” and had seen his father shoot up “a thousand times.”
Riley, who is 9 years old, described how he had often been left alone to care for his baby brother while his parents were somewhere else getting high. Beginning when he was about 5, he would heat up meals of fries, chicken nuggets and spaghetti rings in the microwave for himself and his brother, he said. “That was all I knew how to make,” Riley said.
Riley — who is in foster care and who officials asked not be fully identified because of his age — is among hundreds of students enrolled in the local school district who have witnessed drug use at home. Like many of his classmates at Minford Elementary School, Riley struggles with behavioral and psychological problems that make it difficult to focus, school officials said, let alone absorb lessons.
“If you’re worried about your parents getting arrested last night, you can’t retain information,” said Kendra Rase Cram, a teacher at Minford Elementary who was hired this past academic year to teach students how to cope with trauma. Over the past nine months, she led several classes a day, and met every week in one-on-one sessions with up to 20 students who have experienced significant trauma.
Indeed, the classroom is becoming the battleground in the war against drug addiction where the next generation will be saved or lost in Ohio, which in 2017 had the second highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the country.
Earlier this year, Gov. Mike DeWine proposed $550 million in student wellness funding for schools like Minford Elementary, including a drug prevention curriculum that focuses on “social and emotional” learning — exercises intended to teach students how to cope with the consequences of an opioid epidemic that has ravaged their community and shows no signs of abating.
In Minford, the toll has been exacting: Last academic year, four kindergartners lost parents to fatal overdoses and a fifth had a parent killed in a drug-related homicide. Some of the children were in the same room with their parents when they died.
“We have all these kids who are in survival mode,” Ms. Cram said.
Minford Elementary is not like typical schools. At this small campus in rural southern Ohio, there is a dedicated sensory room stocked with weighted blankets, chewable toys and exercise balls. Children who were born dependent on drugs, as well as others with special needs, can take time to jump on a trampoline or calm down in a play tunnel, sometimes several times each day. In class, students role-play in lessons on self-control, such as blowing bubbles and then waiting to pop them, and anger management, while also learning calming strategies like deep breathing techniques.
[Read: ‘Become My Mom Again’: What It’s Like to Grow Up Amid the Opioid Crisis]
The roads leading to Minford, in Scioto County, wind past picturesque horse farms and cow pastures dotted with decaying barns, run-down trailers and a sign that declares “Jesus saves.” But the pastoral landscape belies a devastated community. In this county, long considered ground zero in Ohio’s opioid epidemic, nearly 9.7 million pills were prescribed in 2010 — enough to give 123 to each resident, the highest rate in the state, according to official statistics. Over the years, as opioid prescriptions have fallen, many drug users have moved on to heroin and fentanyl.
Today, more babies are born in Scioto County suffering from the opioid withdrawal condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome than anywhere else in the state. In Minford, the town’s school district is in many ways on the front lines of the crisis, the effects of which began appearing in classrooms about a decade ago, said Marin Applegate, a psychologist for the Minford school district.
“My preschool teachers just started screaming, ‘We have these kids, their behavior is off the wall and none of the traditional measures are working,’” said Ms. Applegate, who at the time worked with the state’s Department of Education. As drug users shifted from painkillers to heroin, and then to fentanyl, the county’s schools struggled to handle the fallout from parental addiction and abject poverty.
Half of the students in the Minford school district qualify for free or reduced lunch, and around 300 — about 20 percent of the student population — have learning disabilities and emotional problems, a growing number of which are linked to parental addiction, several educators said. The district, which includes a single campus for all grades K-12, also serves three group foster homes, each with sometimes more than 10 children who were taken into state custody because they had been severely abused.
“They’ve been raped, molested, tied up, awful things,” said Ms. Applegate, who is also the district’s special education director.
In an interview, Governor DeWine said that Ohio had recognized that dealing with the crisis required a long-term educational strategy geared toward addressing childhood traumas, not just improving grades. His ambitious proposal follows a push last year to expand the social and emotional learning program through 12th grade, with statewide curriculum standards set for approval this summer.
“You’ve got mental health problems running directly into addiction and poverty,” he said. “The whole goal is to break the cycle.”
Students at Minford Elementary have endured a range of abuse and neglect, county and school officials said. Some children have worn the same clothes for several consecutive days, and some have arrived on campus covered in bedbug bites. Parents have shown up after school high on heroin, school officials said, or have forgotten to pick up their children at all. In play-therapy sessions, some young students have drawn pictures of people cooking meth.
Every morning, their teachers ask: “How do you feel today?”
Each child in kindergarten through third grade responds by picking a color that symbolizes an emotion: red for angry, yellow for nervous, blue for sad, green for happy. Troubled, nervous students can opt for yoga or a calming walk, or they can place their anxieties in a mental “worry box.”
In class, teachers say the traumatic experiences manifest in acts of physical aggression, emotional meltdowns and children unable to focus their gaze.
“Some students look as if they’re on meth,” said Ryan McGraw, the principal at Minford Elementary. “I’ve physically taken a kid’s head and said, ‘I need your eyes.’”
Over the years, educators said, many students have suffered quietly. One teenage boy, Chris Hampton, afraid he would be harmed if he said anything at school about his home life, finally confided in 2016 to a guidance counselor that his mother’s boyfriend regularly assaulted him and his brother. The boy and his mother agreed to tell their story.
“I was sick of it,” said Chris, 14, a rosy-cheeked eighth grader whose mother has now been sober for two years.
After school one recent evening, Chris and his brother, who is two years younger, said they had endured years of abuse when they lived with their mother, Shandy Brown, inside a barn that concealed a meth lab. At the time, she struggled with a drug addiction, and her boyfriend would regularly force the brothers to kneel for hours with their hands behind their heads, according to Chris, Ms. Brown and court officials.
“Sometimes I’d lean my head against the wall,” Chris said. “Mostly I’d just cry.”
His mother recently became a sheriff’s deputy, and the family is now thriving in its new life. But for a long while, Chris said, he carried deep emotional scars.
In January 2017, according to court officials and Chris’s mother, the former boyfriend violated a restraining order that she had filed against him. Chris, fearing that the family would never escape the man’s clutches, threatened to kill himself, he said. He was placed in a psychiatric ward for more than a week.
“I turned 12 the day they let me out,” he said.
Some Minford Elementary students are so young that they only know families devastated by addiction. After Riley’s parents were arrested on charges of heroin trafficking in 2017, Riley suffered caffeine withdrawal — a result of having drunk more than a dozen cans of soda every day, said Mr. McGraw, the principal. Mr. McGraw, a father of three, fostered Riley and his brother for 11 months until relatives could take them.
Since then, Riley has fallen in love with reading, and especially loves the Harry Potter books. He said he can relate to the boy wizard who had a tough childhood. “We’re similar,” he said. “It made me happy that Harry knows how it feels.”
A first grader named Grant represents both the challenge Minford faces and the success it hopes to achieve through its emphasis on “social-emotional” learning. The boy’s grandfather was high on heroin during a recent parent-teacher conference, educators said, and in January, the authorities said his mother was arrested on a drug possession charge in the school’s parking lot. That same day, according to court officials, his father was also arrested.
“Grandma’s also an addict and we couldn’t call any other relatives because they’re either on drugs or probation,” Mr. McGraw said. “The kid had no clue, he’s 6 years old, and we’re supposed to teach him how to read?”
Grant, who is in foster care and who officials asked not be fully identified, is among the roughly 20 students with significant trauma who participate in regular one-on-one sessions with Ms. Cram. On a recent morning, he took a seat on the floor of her classroom, which was decorated with a zebra-print beanbag chair and a Mason jar filled with water and pink glitter that students can shake when they need to feel calm.
As they began playing with wooden blocks, Ms. Cram gently prodded Grant to share what he went through with his parents and how he was adjusting to his foster home. “He doesn’t have anywhere else to talk about uncomfortable things,” she said when he was out of earshot.
Equal parts therapist and detective, Ms. Cram recalled when Grant told her how his parents had given him a “brown powder,” which had to be removed from his body by a doctor. As Grant built a skateboard ramp for his toy dinosaur, Ms. Cram asked him how the powder had made him feel.
A long pause, and then in a tiny voice, “It made me have a headache for a very long time.”
Talking about his parents, who were in jail, upset Grant. Ms. Cram switched gears, and handed him the emotional color chart. He picked yellow, for nervous. “I’m feeling a little worried,” he said.
“What can we do to feel better today?” Ms. Cram asked.
Grant smiled. “Take deep breaths,” he said.
Then he began to inhale and exhale slowly, tracing his right hand with his left index finger at a pace that matched his breathing.
“That felt really good,” he said, once he had finished.
It was just as Ms. Cram had taught him, and that gives her hope for Minford’s future.
“We all know we have a problem,” she said, “but there weren’t solutions. Finally people are rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it.”