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Diana Whitlock, assistant director in the Office of Special Education and Student Support at the West Virginia Department of Education, explains the collaboration with Marshall University during the unveiling of “ReClaim West Virginia” on Feb. 6 in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — In 2013, 33 out of every 1,000 infants in West Virginia were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. In fall 2018, many of those children entered kindergarten.

That created crises — for the children and their teachers — in many classrooms across the state.

In 2017, the number of infants born with NAS grew to 50.6 out of every 1,000. That means beginning this fall, many of these children suffering from the growing intensity of the opioid epidemic will walk through the doors of a West Virginia Universal Pre-K program, posing more challenges for educators.

Those developments, along with the fact that about 80% of the 7,000 children in foster care in West Virginia have been affected by parents’ or guardians’ drug use, can mean that many teachers are at a loss regarding how to deal with their students’ various problems.

“I found myself feeling as if I was failing my students,” Rachel Fisk, a third-grade teacher at Scott Teays Elementary School in Putnam County, said as she described the alarming increase of students with behavioral and mental health problems over the past few years.

“My colleagues and I were in the same position,” she continued. “It wasn’t until earlier in the school year that I found myself at a trauma training hosted by the West Virginia Behavior/Mental Health Technical Assistance Center, and boy, did it bring on a new sense of hope.”

The Behavior/Mental Health TAC, located at Marshall University’s Autism Training Center in Huntington, has now teamed up with the state’s Department of Education and other partnering organizations to launch a formal support initiative, “ReClaim West Virginia,” unveiled Thursday morning on the university’s campus.

“The WVDE has heard from our educators and we are answering cries for help through ReClaimWV and our technical assistance center,” Diana Whitlock, assistant director in the Office of Special Education and Student Support at the WVDE, said. “Although we are formally announcing ReClaimWV today, we have been working behind the scenes very diligently over the past 15 months to answer those calls for help.”

The program is designed to support schools, teachers, personnel, families and students, who often reflect trauma through adverse or disruptive behaviors as a consequence of the substance misuse crisis, Whitlock said.

ReClaimWV will provide comprehensive assistance to educators across the state through online resources, tool kits and sustained support from the TAC and Marshall.

Jim Harris, associate director at Marshall’s Autism Training Center, said while the program’s work is just beginning, the agencies are prepared for the challenge.

“Kids have complicated problems and teachers have complicated issues, so complex problems need comprehensive and complex solutions. This is not ‘one and done’ training,” Harris said. “These are not just webinars. This is integrative work, complex strategies, but we’re very comfortable with the work that needs to be done.”

Harris said the TAC already has conducted 232 school team trainings and worked with more than 1,000 early childhood professionals and 8,000 individuals in mental health first aid in recent months. Educators like Fisk are already seeing the results.

“I personally have already seen two students reap the benefits from me receiving this training,” Fisk said. “No school, no community, no town is immune to this opioid crisis. We’re all in it together, and knowing that we now have a game plan, so to speak, for the opioid epidemic and how it’s impacting our children, it makes you feel hopeful.

“You’re ready to go to battle, and you are equipped with what you need to help these children overcome that toxic stress and trauma that they’re facing,” she said.

And that’s the ultimate goal, Harris said, for ReClaimWV — to begin giving educators their sense of confidence back in order to help struggling children overcome obstacles.

“This is about building local capacity in each district, each county. We’re training folks to be able to have teams locally that can do problem solving and technical assistance and behavior. Our job is to help the local folks feel more capable in their work and supporting them,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of conversation about what’s wrong, and problems, and, ‘How bad is it?’ in the statistics, but I think this is an investment in solutions. We have to be careful — if we admire our problems too long, we’re wasting time that we could be using to solve them.”

ReClaimWV’s online resource provides educators, students, families and communities with immediate and long-term prevention and intervention strategies as well as an application for training or assistance at www.wvde.us/reclaimwv.

Follow reporter Hanna Pennington via Twitter @hpennHD.

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