On the overhead screen, the teachers saw a photograph of Mrs. Goldberg's class of smiling third graders. They were attending a week of training on how to lessen the effects of substance abuse on the development of students. As they scanned every face, they were told that one of those children, Steven, at that time was being physically abused by his alcoholic father and sexually abused by the father's friend. Drugs would soon become part of the child's life. He would grow up to be a chronic drug user and to rape and murder a mother of two before being sentenced to life without parole.
Years later, Mrs. Goldberg would write the sentencing judge as he weighed giving the death penalty, "In all my years of teaching, there were five children I will never forget. Steven was one of those. He never had a chance."
Most teachers develop an ability to recognize the child who is likely to develop serious mental and emotional problems, but they need the training to respond appropriately and to link the child with services that can help. Moreover, teachers may lack the perception to see the trauma of the compliant silent lost child in the back row, the active clown in the center, or the overly responsible hero in the front. These children endure a home life that undermines their happiness and success as students and adults and will affect their children as well.
Studies vary on the actual number of school age children who have an alcoholic parent. Some estimates are as high as one in every four. Some children will develop the resiliency to surmount the problems caused by parental substance abuse. Others will do so with the help of a caring adult who not only listens and fosters trust, but encourages them to develop skills for self protection, self sufficiency, and a positive self image. Others who might be helped will, instead, become angry, antisocial survivors whose lifestyles and life problems cost society dearly.
When our society was less transient, children who needed help could turn to non-drinking relatives and neighbors. But, today, most families have relocated several times and live far from those who might know what goes on inside their homes. Who then can be the first line of defense for these kids? Because of the extent and duration of their contact with children and their ability to influence young people, teachers are the most obvious.
Undergraduate and graduate schools of education have only recently added special education courses to degree requirements; very few address addiction and its impact on the family. As a result, teachers have asked for inservice programs addressing COAs in the classroom. Many inservices are funded with the help of the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act.
Like the 65 teachers attending this training, most believe that one caring teacher with knowledge and skills can make a difference. "It did for me," said Joe, a coach. "I was like that kid, Steven. But in the sixth grade, my coach took me aside, told me he understood and that I would make it if I tried. That's why I'm at this training, for the other Stevens."
Deborah George Wright, M.A., is Associate Dean of Extended Learning, Southwestern Oregon Community College, Koos Bay, OR, and a NACoA Board Member.