Administrators LEAD & MANAGE MY SCHOOL
Open Letter on Supporting Students to Prevent Substance Use and Substance Use Disorders

TO: K-12 educators, administrators, and staff
Higher education faculty and staff

As students across the country start a new school year, schools and colleges have the opportunity to put young people on the path to success. Education is a driver of opportunity and can play an important role not only in allowing students to meet their potential but preventing young people from heading down the wrong path.

Misuse of prescription drugs, including prescription opioid pain medications such as oxycodone hydrocodone, and morphine used for pain, as well as the use of illicit drugs and alcohol by adolescents and young adults, is a problem that plagues urban, suburban, and rural communities alike. In recognition that too many Americans, including youth and young adults, have opioid use disorders and overdose on prescription opioids, President Obama has made addressing the opioid epidemic a top priority for the entire Administration. 1

Although opioids can play a role in the management of certain types of pain, they pose serious risks, including risk for misuse, addiction, and overdose. Fortunately, there are resources and strategies that can strengthen substance use prevention and treatment efforts in schools and colleges, as well as support recovery from substance use disorders in young people. Families, religious institutions, law enforcement, public health, and social service agencies all have a part to play in preventing or reducing drug use and addiction and supporting those who need help.

One way educational institutions can help is by intentionally creating campus cultures that engage students academically and socially and that foster norms that discourage the use of drugs.

Second, schools can help by training teachers, administrators, counselors, coaches, and nurses to look for signs that students are misusing drugs. Colleges can train residential directors and peer advisors as well as clinical personnel to notice these signs with the use of standardized screening tools. If school or college personnel suspect that students are misusing drugs, they should be aware of where students and their families can access counseling, substance use treatment, and recovery support services.

Third, schools can help prevent the misuse of opioid pain relievers and other drugs by educating students about the risks of substance use disorders and alternative ways to treat or control pain.

Fourth, schools can provide naloxone to school nurses and college health care facilities to ensure that overdoses can be reversed. In addition, campus law enforcement can take advantage of state laws that allow them to carry and administer naloxone to get help to those who need it.

This is relevant for all students and is especially important for student athletes who may be prescribed opioid pain relievers for a sports-related or other injury. 2 Providing information and training for athletic trainers and coaches to identify risk signs and know where students can go for help and treatment is critical. Resources like the National Directory of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Treatment Centers [PDF, 11.5MB], operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), can help.

Moreover, schools and colleges can help combat the opioid crisis and overdose epidemic by supporting primary drug prevention programs, offering counseling and mental health support to students in need, screening for substance use in student clinics and making referrals to treatment where necessary, and providing support services to students in recovery from substance use disorders.

Use of Prescription and Illicit Drugs by Adolescents and Young Adults

Young people may obtain prescription drugs illegally from friends and family or even from the shelves of their parents' medicine cabinet or medical providers. In 2015, an estimated 276,000 adolescents – ages 12 to 17 – misused opioid pain relievers in the past month (taking them without a prescription or not using them as directed). According to the same study, an estimated 829,000 young adults – ages 18 to 25 – reported past month misuse of these drugs. Additionally, pain reliever use disorder affected approximately 122,000 adolescents and 427,000 young adults.

Tragically, some adolescents and young adults who misuse opioid-based prescription drugs shift to heroin use. As reflected in the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) report, released this September: 3

  • 21,000 adolescents and 217,000 young adults used heroin in the past year, including 88,000 students who were current (past month) users.
  • About 6,000 adolescents in 2015 used a heroin in the past year.
  • Another 155,000 young adults used heroin in the past year.

Administration Response and Federal Resources

The Obama Administration is taking a variety of actions to expand access to treatment for opioid use disorders, expand the availability of a medication called naloxone for reversing potentially fatal opioid overdoses, strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs, provide easier access to the proper disposal of unused drugs, promote safer prescribing of opioids for pain, and accelerate research on alternative pain treatments.

In March, July, and September of this year, the Administration announced a series of actions to address the epidemic, including raising the patient limit on the use of buprenorphine for opioid use disorder treatment, which will allow more patients to be provided medication-assisted treatment. These actions build on the October 2015 announcement by President Obama, where private sector organizations made a series of commitments aimed at addressing the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic. These included commitments by more than 40 organizations, including educators and others who have an opportunity to reach students and youth. 4 Commitments have been made by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, National Association of High School Coaches, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, and the National Parent-Teacher Association, among others.

There are a number of grant resources and other opportunities for technical assistance available from the U.S. Department of Education that may support schools in their work with students.

  • The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) is funded by the Department's Office of Safe and Healthy Students (OSHS) and seeks to improve schools' conditions for learning. NCSSLE is the primary repository for information on these topics. It has a section dedicated to substance use prevention, which includes links to other federal resources such as the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, an online, searchable database of evidence-based substance use and mental health interventions that schools can implement. 5
  • The Department's Homeroom blog provides information on events, including the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) Drug Facts Week, co-sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which is a national health observance for teenagers to promote local events that use NIH science to shatter the myths about drugs. 6 Also, on a weekly basis, OSHS emails its newsletter to over 20,000 subscribers, often featuring new substance use survey results and prevention resources. 7
  • President Obama requested $500 million in Fiscal Year 2017 for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program authorized under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). If Congress appropriates funding for this program, local school districts will have additional resources to respond to school and student needs across three areas: providing students with a well-rounded education, ensuring safe and supportive learning environments, and using technology to improve instruction. Among allowable activities at the district level would be evidence-supported programs that focus on drug prevention, early intervention, treatment referral, and recovery support, as well as raising awareness about the consequences of drug use. Districts will also be able to use funds for school-based mental health services.
  • The Department's 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program funds academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours for children, particularly students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. 8 Under ESSA, drug prevention and counseling programs, as well as programs that support students in leading a healthy and active lifestyle, are allowable activities at the local level. These funds can be used to support students in recovery, as well as implementation of drug prevention programs targeting all students in the program.
  • The Department has developed new, high-quality, adaptable ED School Climate Surveys (EDSCLS) and an associated web-based platform that allows states, districts, and schools to collect and act on reliable, nationally validated school climate data in real time. The surveys do not include questions about individual student drug use. Rather, they collect data about the school climate related to drug use in general, and schools can tailor their responses. 9 High-quality school climate data allows one to understand the perceptions of students, staff, and parents in the school or district; monitor progress; make data-driven decisions; involve stakeholders; and adapt to shifting needs.
  • Finally, recognizing that parents are the first line in preventing drug use, the Department of Education partners with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to distribute to parents the popular publication "Growing up Drug-Free: A Parent's Guide to Prevention." [PDF, 4.2MB] 10 There is an entire section on prescription drug misuse, and it discusses opioids in particular. The agencies will soon publish a Spanish language version of this publication.

Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) have a particularly critical role to play in prevention and treatment. For example, campus counselors play an important role in treating and addressing use and misuse of drugs and alcohol, and IHEs should continue to support and utilize their services. IHEs can incorporate information about these services in orientations and other appropriate campus events. Additionally, IHEs can provide training to campus staff to help identify drug and alcohol use, ensuring that students are referred to counselors and get the help they need.

In addition, IHEs are required to comply with the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (DFSCA) 11 and the Department of Education's regulations at 34 CFR Part 86.

To promote continuous improvement of IHE drug prevention programs, Part 86 also requires an IHE to conduct a biennial review of its program to determine its effectiveness and implement changes to the program if they are needed.

And, Part 86 requires that IHEs annually notify students of any drug or alcohol counseling, treatment, rehabilitation, and reentry programs available to them.

The federal government has a number of resources, including:

  • College Student Drinking Fact Sheet [PDF, 244KB], which gives an overview of the issue and breaks down binge and heavy drinking by gender, alcohol use consequences, and alcohol use prevention, and College Student Health and Safety Fact Sheet, which covers alcohol and drug use, sexual health, sleep, and stress.
  • The Sound of Your Voice, a short, animated video and guide that encourages parents to talk with their young adults about the consequences of underage alcohol use. College counselors can share the link or show this video to parents during events such as freshmen orientation.
  • SAMHSA's Communities Talk: Town Hall Meetings to Prevent Underage Drinking, which educates communities about underage and high-risk drinking and mobilizes them to take evidence-based actions at local, state, and national levels.
  • Underage Drinking Fact Sheet [PDF, 211KB], which provides an overview of underage alcohol use and the overall health and safety risks, including data on underage drinking by adolescents and young adults and a breakdown by gender and racial/ethnic group.
  • The CDC has a central web page for information about opioids and the opioid epidemic.

The opioid epidemic is a complex public health and public safety crisis. We all must do our part to help address the epidemic and decrease drug use and its consequences. Thank you for your commitment to fostering safe and productive learning environments and the well-being and success of all students.

John B. King, Jr.
Secretary of Education


2 Preventing Opioid Use Among Student Athletes resource document









11 Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, 20 U.S.C. 1011i

Last Modified: 09/23/2016