Schools in Scioto County, educators said, have seen a surge in the number of children born addicted to opioids or suffering from neglect, many with severe learning disabilities, some barely able to speak. Teachers told of tantrums, at times violent, and of chairs thrown in classrooms.
In a nation where more than 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose — and in a region where the impact of addiction has taken a severe emotional toll on children — school is for many students a refuge; a place where they attend classes, but also have access to hot meals, hot showers and donated clean clothes. On Fridays, educators said, students can take home backpacks full of food so they won’t go hungry over the weekend.
Still, school is only a temporary respite.
Educators said that students growing up in families affected by addiction tended to linger on campus until the doors were locked at night, reluctant to go home. Some had returned the next morning and casually mentioned that a parent had died or overdosed the prior evening. And law enforcement officials described instances of children who were sexually assaulted, tied up or found sleeping on cardboard in houses littered with needles and dog feces.
Last academic year, 28 middle and high school students in the Portsmouth City School District told counselors that they had contemplated suicide, said Beth Burke, a guidance counselor at Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, the county seat.
“I spend a lot of time putting kids in ambulances,” she said. “They don’t want to live this life and they have no way out.”
In many ways, Portsmouth High is like home for many of these students. They eat breakfast and lunch there, and modern classrooms and computer labs are starkly juxtaposed with laundry facilities. Many students frequently come to school wearing the same, unwashed clothes days in a row, so shelves are stocked with clean garments, along with fresh shampoo, bars of soap and deodorant.
Yet some of the teenagers change back into their own clothes after the final bell rings and the last class ends, “because parents will take new clothes and sell them for drug money,” said Drew Applegate, an assistant principal.