Gov. Chris Christie came to Nutley’s Washington Elementary School last week to help put the spotlight on drug abuse prevention.
“We have people all across the state who are dying from drugs,” Christie told a group of sixth-graders who’d just gotten a lesson on drugs from Nutley PD Officer Steven Rogers and Det. Sgt. Michael Padilla.
That lesson was based on a curriculum provided by a New Jersey nonprofit, L.E.A.D. (Law Enforcement Against Drugs), which has, so far, received $375,000 in state funding to spread its message across schools in nine of the state’s 21 counties.
Amplifying on the lesson, the governor said if kids can “stop and think first” and “make the right decisions” about avoiding the pitfalls of abusing drugs, they can help stop the state’s slide into a tragedy of epidemic proportions, he said.
To hammer home his point, Christie said that in 2015, there were 1,600 people who “died from opioid overdoses in New Jersey” – triple the number of auto fatalities and four times the number “killed in car accidents” in the state that same year.
The governor warned the students that the prescription drugs “in your parents’ medicine chests” or the painkillers administered for sports injuries “can be just as dangerous” as illegal street drugs “if you don’t use them correctly.”
In fact, Christie said, “four out of five people who get addicted to heroin started by misusing prescription drugs.”
During his last year in office, Christie has pledged to deal with the drug scourge by pressing lawmakers to pass a bill that would compel insurance companies to reimburse addicts for in-patient treatment stays of up to six months.
That same bill would also limit doctors to initial prescriptions of opioid painkillers to no more than five days to prevent potential overuse.
Currently, local cops are regularly visiting schools in nine counties – Essex, Bergen, Hudson, Union, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Camden and Burlington – to deliver L.E.A.D. lessons.
Kearny is using the program in its schools and Harrison cops are currently undergoing training to do the same in that town.
In Nutley, five police officers are assigned “to teach 10 lesson plans through the school year,” according to Police Chief Thomas Strumolo.
“We started the program two years ago,” the chief said, after DARE NJ’s charter had been revoked by the national DARE group. The state chapter clashed with the national over the type of curriculum to be used. L.E.A.D. has adapted part of the old DARE NJ curriculum and its current president, Nicholas DeMauro, is a former CEO of DARE NJ.
Strumolo said he likes L.E.A.D.’s emphasis on getting students to think about “goal setting” and “decision making” about their futures. “It’s a broader approach than just focusing on drugs,” he added.
In the lesson offered last Tuesday, Rogers and Padilla had students extract information from L.E.A.D. workbooks and role play to discover how to recognize telltale signs of drug use by their peers and/or adults and what to do about it.
Kimberley Harrington, the acting state education commissioner, offered her stamp of approval, telling the Nutley sixth-graders that, through L.E.A.D., “you’re getting a great foundation to be great citizens in standing up for things that are right” and learning that, “it’s okay to say no [to drugs] and to do the things that protect you.”
Padilla credited the governor for “taking a stand on drug addiction” and township Public Safety Commissioner Alphonse Petracco for his efforts to make Nutley a safer community.
It was only “after a long, extensive search” for the right way to educate youngsters about drugs that the commissioner found L.E.A.D., Padilla said. The program has proven to be very popular, he added. “The cops are like rock stars when they enter the schools.”
Christie told the students that, with help from state legislators, he hoped he could expand the L.E.A.D. program to include kids as early as kindergarten in all 21 counties.
Contrasting the way society has changed in its approach to drugs, Christie said that when he was in sixth grade – in 1974 – drugs were around but “no one talked about it – it was a big, dirty secret.”
“But today, we know we have to talk about it,” he said.
And, he reminded the students, “Remember, people who have drug problems are sick and when people are sick, you get them help because if you don’t, they’ll only get sicker.”