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This West Virginia school is caring for students, when addicted parents can’t

December 27, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
In opioid-stricken West Virginia, this school is taking on the role of parent. Lisa Stark of Education Week visits Cottageville Elementary, where students often lack food, clothes and transportation because of drug-addicted parents. In addition to increasing communication with local law enforcement, the school has created a mentor program that pairs neglected kids with role models they can trust.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: The number of deaths from opioid abuse continues to climb, topping 33,000 in 2015, according to the federal government.

One of the hardest-hit states is West Virginia, where the impact of the opioid problem can reach elementary schools. It’s not the students who are using, but their parents. Grandparents, foster parents and the schools are figuring out how to cope for the youngest kids.

Special correspondent Lisa Stark with our partner Education Week traveled to Jackson County, West Virginia. It’s the focus of our weekly education series, Making the Grade.

A warning to our viewers: Some of the scenes may be difficult to watch.

LISA STARK: Emily Durst’s fourth-grade class is a lively place. The Cottageville Elementary School teacher likes to combine math with movement and with music.

So, it’s not surprising that 10-year-old Briana Sotomayor looks forward to school and to learning.

BRIANA SOTOMAYOR, Student: I love to write. I write stories all the time.

LISA STARK: Briana came to Cottageville Elementary at the end of second grade. It had been a tough year. She and her sister Riley ricocheted among four schools and three foster homes, ending up at the Sotomayor home.

CARRIE SOTOMAYOR: They had reached a certain point where it was just they didn’t trust anybody. They didn’t believe anybody.

LISA STARK: For the sisters, life had had a rough start, born to a mother addicted to drugs, including prescription pain pills, and a father in and out of jail.

CARRIE SOTOMAYOR: They were able to in great detail tell you how to crush pain medications and mix them with water and inject them, among other things. So, they knew far more about it than I did.

LISA STARK: Carrie and Paul Sotomayor have now adopted the girls, and also a little boy, Zeke, who had been neglected as an infant. Now they’re a family.

PAUL SOTOMAYOR, Father: We have adopted three children, and, lord willing, one more.

LISA STARK: Like Briana and Riley, the fourth child they hope to adopt, a boy, 3 months old, was also born to a drug-addicted mother.

CARRIE SOTOMAYOR: When we brought him through the door, Riley just burst into tears and said, how could anybody have done drugs and hurt this little baby? And it just — it broke her heart.

LISA STARK: The impact of the opioid epidemic on children, parents almost dying from pain pills, fentanyl or heroin, has been on graphic display in pictures released by law enforcement.

The epidemic has hit hard in West Virginia. With more parents abusing drugs, the number of children placed in foster care has jumped 24 percent in five years, to more than 5,000.

Here in Jackson County, local officials saw a spike in overdoses among adults after this aluminum factory shut down in 2009, throwing hundreds out of work. Unemployment is just one of the risk factors that puts West Virginia right at the heart of the opioid epidemic.

It’s also a state with dangerous jobs, not just manufacturing, but coal mining. Workers get injured. They are prescribed powerful opioids for pain relief. That can begin a cycle of addiction.

Jackson County Sheriff Tony Boggs, who is part of a community task force to combat drug abuse, says heroin is now his number one drug problem, after marijuana.

TONY BOGGS, Sheriff, Jackson County, West Virginia: I think in the mid- to late- ’90s, OxyContin was a huge ordeal. It was prescribed, in my opinion, way out of control. It got a lot of people addicted. Once it starts drying up, then they have to have something to turn to. It’s whatever’s easiest and readily available, and that has become heroin.

LISA STARK: This has not gone unnoticed at Cottageville Elementary.

TRACY LEMASTERS, Principal, Cottageville Elementary School: We definitely see that impact. No one is waking them up to get them to school. They’re often late because their parents are sleeping in because they had partied too late the night before. The child has no food. They are hungry when they enter the building. They don’t want to go home on the weekends.

LISA STARK: Principal Tracy LeMasters, who holds a hallway huddle with her staff every morning, regularly checks the local paper to see if any of her students’ parents have been arrested, so she and the teachers can be ready to help that child.

TRACY LEMASTERS: It can be very heartbreaking.

You know, I have — I have preschool students that, freely, at mealtime, talk about their mommies or daddies being in jail.

LISA STARK: And under a new program here, called Handle With Care, law enforcement now contacts the school districts if they have an interaction with a family overnight.

TONY BOGGS: They will know that, hey, that kid had a rough night last night. There’s a reason that they’re acting out in school today, or there’s a reason they are not here today.

LISA STARK: At Cottageville Elementary, the percentage of low-income students is so high, over 90 percent, that everyone gets a free breakfast and lunch.

The school’s 137 students come from the surrounding neighborhoods, including three nearby trailer parks. Principal LeMasters figures about a third of her students do not live with their biological parents, mainly due to drug abuse.

How does that impact you as a principal of a school, running a school?

TRACY LEMASTERS: We assume that everything needs to be provided here. So that means, if they need clothes, we’re going to give them clothes. If they need food, we’re going to get them food. You know, they need love, we’re giving them the hug.

LISA STARK: School counselor Robin Corbin meets with kids three days a week. It’s not enough. The school could use her full time. It’s not in the budget.

So, Corbin last year began enlisting help, turning to employees of a local plastics company to become mentors for students who needed extra support. The kids see it as a weekly half-hour of fun, but it’s really much more.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this program?

ROBIN CORBIN, Counselor, Cottageville Elementary School: Just someone else in their life that they can depend on. That was one of the main things that we ask of these mentors, is that they be reliable and dependable. If they say they’re going to be here Tuesday 11:30, please be here Tuesday 11:30. And they have been fantastic with that.

That’s something that these children don’t have and don’t see, an adult that they can depend on.

LISA STARK: And like many school districts nationwide, this one participates in a national drug prevention education week, holding an essay and poster contest.

WOMAN: Next, we will have our essay award presentation.

LISA STARK: And among the winners, Briana Sotomayor, whose essay spoke volumes.

Do you mind reading us what you wrote?

BRIANA SOTOMAYOR: Sure.

LISA STARK: Is that OK?

BRIANA SOTOMAYOR: Sure.

LISA STARK: OK. I’m going to give you — this is your winning essay.

BRIANA SOTOMAYOR: OK.

“A Better Life.”

“There once was this woman who was on drugs, and I was her daughter. Now she is very sick.”

LISA STARK: Briana goes on to talk about her ambitions: to be a gymnastics teacher, to have a husband and children, to stay away from drugs.

BRIANA SOTOMAYOR: “If I grew up to be like my biological mom, I wouldn’t get any of these things.”

PAUL SOTOMAYOR: It was definitely heart-touching, and to see a girl, especially 10 years old, to really just be honest.

LISA STARK: For Briana and her sister, Riley, there’s a community helping them move beyond their past, from their new mom and dad, to the educators who nurture them.

When I come back and talk to you when you’re 20 years old or 30 years old, what’s going to — what is Briana going to be like then?

BRIANA SOTOMAYOR: Well, I’m going to be old.

(LAUGHTER)

LISA STARK: You will be.

BRIANA SOTOMAYOR: But, hopefully, I won’t be on drugs, and I will be succeeding in my priorities and just succeeding in life.

LISA STARK: That’s a lesson these schools are trying to teach all their students.

In Jackson County, West Virginia, I’m Lisa Stark of Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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