When you meet new friends and sense shared priorities, the conversations become wide ranging and, even in a professional setting, a lot of fun. The time flies, and following up becomes not a chore but something to look forward to.
I’m happy to share that this is what happened with me in Staten Island Borough Hall last week, with two new colleagues who are already (affectionately) making fun of me in emails and on calls. In the often difficult business of getting things done in government and politics, these sorts of exchanges make it all worthwhile. Which isn’t to say we were talking about easy stuff, far from it. The conversation felt important.
Staten Island is diverse. It’s diverse ethnically and racially, economically, and in terms of housing status. It’s diverse through the lens of educational level attained, language spoken at home, and in profession. This diversity is sometimes subtle, presenting gradually sometimes on the same block of homes, and sometimes it’s revealed starkly between neighborhoods and regions. Staten Island’s diversity, not well understood in other parts of the city, is very real.
Add to this diversity the borough’s political heft, as Staten Island Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, whose district also includes parts of Brooklyn, performed strongly against incumbent Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio.
I was visiting Staten Island last week to meet with two of the Borough President’s education aides, specifically about language programs in new schools, and about school diversity. Those issues quickly addressed and mostly agreed upon, the discussion took a different turn. One of my hosts turned to me, perhaps she fondly turned on me, to lament the lack of commitment by City Hall and city government to drug education in elementary schools. Albany has made this a mandate, early drug education, but the city isn’t sufficiently making it happen.
Staten Island, I’m sure you know, is in the midst of a longtime opioid epidemic that is ripping apart families and killing teens and young adults. From abusing prescriptions pills to then heroin and dangerous fentanyl, this borough has long been grappling with how to effectively manage and curtail drug abuse and fatalities. While law enforcement is a vital tool, my talk last week was about about young children learning to make better decisions, and comparing this crisis with the HIV / AIDS crisis of years before.
Staten Island Borough President James Oddo has, with partners in law enforcement and health care, brought consistent early drug education into elementary schools. While middle school lessons are important, some seventh and eighth graders are already experimenting (and more) with controlled substances, their later decision making informed by early experiences. Restraint, responsible decision making, and so called “executive functions” come from repetition of messaging alongside sincere conversations. Middle school years are already too fraught to first introduce the topic. Responsibility comes from layers of interactions, not one lecture.
The real issue in schools is this, was explained to me last week: when drug use, overdoses, and deaths happen to young adults in their 20s, and among those in later teen years, these tragedies aren’t necessarily linked to schools. The comparison to HIV / AIDS education is easy to see. When students were getting sick and dying, the connection with education and schools was obvious. Earlier education in younger grades was implemented with age appropriate curricula. That effort, one of many tools in the toolbox, played a significant role in plummeting infection rates.
So why aren’t we doing more of this, consistently in younger grades, for drug prevention? Are we afraid of difficult conversations? Surely talking about the consequences of drug use is easier than planning a funeral.
Staten Island is leading the way in early drug education because it has to. Borough President Oddo – and his partners in policy, policing, and prevention – deserve credit for the effort. But credit, I’m sure, isn’t why they’re doing this. It’s a saying so often heard that it’s become a cliche, but they’re doing it for the children.