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Berkshire DA, Northern Berkshire Schools To Offer Drug Prevention Classes Next Year

JD Allen
Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless says the earlier children are taught lifeskills about drugs the better.

The Berkshire County District Attorney’s office and local schools will be teaming up to bring drug abuse and prevention classes to students as young as 9. It’s in response to an uptick in the number of children abusing drugs in the region.

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition has released an assessment of youth alcohol and marijuana use across the region.

Executive Director Amber Besaw says basically, high school students are binge-drinking and using marijuana more recreationally. The substances are illegal for people under age 21 in Massachusetts.

“What we are learning is it’s not everybody but it can be anybody,” Besaw says.

Besaw says children who are depressed – which the region tests high for – are more likely to use.

In response, the Berkshire District Attorney’s Community Outreach and Education Program will provide training, technical support and materials for middle and high schools in northern Berkshire County next academic year.

District Attorney David Capeless says they’ll be using the LifeSkills prevention curriculum, which has been around for 30 years. Capeless says the goal is to eventually start with third-graders. 

“The earlier, the better,” Capeless says.

Rather than focusing on treating users, the effort aims to prevent drug abuse with the classes. The later children first use a drug, the less likely they are to abuse it.

Since 2015, the District Attorney’s office has brought the program to central Berkshire County schools. It’s an 18-week course for sixth-graders, and an eight-week program for grades 7 through 12.

“This is a program that really does work. It’s far from being ‘Just say No,’” Capeless says. “It does not simply explain to students about the kinds of choices they should be making and should not be making but it provides them with the personal skills not only their own self-confidence but the social skills in dealing with their peers enable them to be able to not only make those choices but to put them into action.”

It’s backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which holds that parents should talk to their children about alcohol beginning at age 9.

Dr. Jen Degrenier of Northern Berkshire Pediatrics, which is partnering with NBCC, says the organization adopted that philosophy last year and applied it to marijuana use, too. The collaboration between Northern Berkshire Pediatrics, the District Attorney’s office, Northern Berkshire Schools and NBCC, Degrenier says, will bring awareness to parents and their students outside of school to prevent underage drinking and marijuana use.

“Essentially we are sort of trying to identify a book by its cover, a little bit,” Degrenier says.

Kim Roberts-Morandi, the Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment at North Adams Public Schools, says the goal is to get educators, parents, students and the community on the same page.

“This collaboration allows people to really share the resources and to take advantage what's available of that you maybe wouldn’t have known about,” Roberts-Morandi says.

NBCC’s report found that children are more likely to use if their parents do. 

Officials say more than 10 percent of students in grade 8 in northern Berkshire County have used pot within the last 30 days. A tenth also say they’re drinking. But unlike with alcohol, children say they are using marijuana daily – even multiple times a day. That may be because they perceive it is less dangerous or even medically beneficial.

“This is more about providing students with the skills that they need to make life-long healthy choices. We are not telling them what to do.

We are engaging them in conversation, in activities, and in challenges that will provide them with the skills that they need to make wise choices,” Roberts-Morandi says.

Capeless says southern Berkshire County schools want to join too. NBCC is hosting a forum to discuss the impact of marijuana on children on May 25 in North Adams. 

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