As I walked out of a recent parent meeting I found myself overwhelmed with sadness, frustration, and many questions. The meeting centered around a former student, who is now a parent, working to re-enter their child’s life after opiate addiction led them down an unthinkable path that ultimately ended in jail. This was not my first meeting of this type, and the most salient point all parents wrestling with opiate addiction have shared with me is, “The only thing I am focused on is getting my child back. That is the only reason I am here.”

Opiate addiction is not an unfamiliar issue in our community. However, the frequency with which we are facing this issue has recently escalated. Following this meeting I reached out to my friend Dr. Fred Holmes for some support and guidance. He stated the following: “I think the question is one of ‘What don’t I understand?’”

I have been a public school educator for nearly two decades. For the past sixteen years I have served the community of Fairfax as a school administrator. Fairfax is a rural community in northern Vermont with a grade PreK-12 school that is housed in one building. I love working here for many reasons. Mainly, I appreciate the opportunity to watch students grow and develop over time. However, our idyllic community is one of many in Vermont grappling with opiate addiction.

The past few years have brought new challenges to our community and school. The rise in prescription opioids and heroin use is having significant impacts and consequences for our students and families. We are experiencing an increase in the number of students that are being raised by their grandparents, uncles and aunts, and foster parents because their parents have lost custody due to their addiction. Most of these addicted parents are my former students. Their addiction has cost them their children, their families, and their community due to lying, stealing, and neglect.  

Several years ago our staff, students, and parents watched The Hungry Heart. This film examines prescription drug addiction and the work of Pediatrician Fred Holmes to treat his patients struggling with this disease. Dr. Holmes is a member of our community and graciously volunteered to attend every showing of the movie and to facilitate difficult conversations. In hindsight, our decision to view this film marked an important step in raising awareness and began a discussion about the consequences of opiate addiction.

Prescription drug and heroin addiction is not going away. The impacts on children and families are complex and wide ranging. We experience the consequences each day as we work to educate the children affected by these challenges. The medical, cognitive, and behavioral ramifications have forced us to allocate new resources and realign our practices to support students with trauma and attachment issues. We refer to it as the “new normal.”

The number of students impacted by prescription drug and heroin addiction will continue to grow, and schools will need to raise awareness in their communities, educate all stakeholders, and adapt our support systems to meet the needs of families struggling with this ever-growing epidemic.

If our story and experiences seem familiar, I would encourage you to watch The Hungry Heart with your community. It is a powerful movie that will foster an important dialogue. If opiate addiction is prevalent in our small rural community, then my guess is it is everywhere. I challenge you to ask yourself, “What don’t I understand?”


Target 2. Leadership: FWSU students and staff lead innovative, personalized learning opportunities, both locally and globally.

Indicator of Success: Students and staff monitor their initiatives and reflect together.

Action Step: Demonstrate learning habits, communication, and problem-solving skills necessary for collaborative learning and leadership



Thomas Walsh is the Principal of BFA Fairfax Elementary Middle School and is a regular contributor to the FWSU Blog. You can follow him on Twitter @educatamount

8 thoughts on “Opiate Addiction and Its Impact On My Students

  1. Another great resource is a book that came out a few months ago by a local author titled “Moral Dissipation” It’s a fictional story based here in VT but it is scarily accurate in it’s portrayal of what life is like for an addict and their family. It really outlines the fact that addiction knows no boundaries, it doesn’t discriminate, it can happen to anyone…

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  2. Great insight , Tom, into a growing problem spreading throughout the country. Here in PA, the opiate addiction is also claiming the lives of many young adults . I’m going to watch The Hungry Heart and pass it on to the community.

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  3. Well written, I am a substance abuse clinician at a residential treatment program and we have a waiting list for treatment and your correct in that the # of people that need help is growing and what most don’t understand is that it’s a disease that changes the neuro pathways in the brain , and the idea that it’s a choice is only partially acurate, I love my job and I work daily to educate and support change not only in my clients , but in the communities and families that support them, we need to work together, this is an issue that is not going away and it doesn’t pick and choose, it affect individuals across all socio economic levels.

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