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A View of the Epidemic: Looking His ‘Kiddos’ in the Eye (Video)

  • Tunbridge Central School Principal Scott Farnsworth looks on as kindergarteners Bradley Benson, left, Ethan Chapman, middle, and Amelia Hornsby work on their Star 360 literacy evaluations during Elizabeth Dutton's class in Tunbridge, Vt., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Dutton's students were rotating between several literacy centers for activities. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2018

It’s not just families who are coping with the consequences of the opioid epidemic, although they undoubtedly are paying the highest personal price. Many others encounter the crisis in the course of their work – physicians, child welfare workers, police officers and prosecutors, to name a few. Once a month for the coming year or so, the Valley News will focus on some of those people to get their perspective on the crisis and how it has changed both their work and their understanding of the epidemic.

Tunbridge — His first two years at Tunbridge Central School, counselor-turned-principal Scott Farnsworth kept a photograph of Ryan Mullen, a graduate of Hartford High School who grew up in Tunbridge, on his desk. After working together for four years, Farnsworth had gotten to know Ryan, and Ryan’s struggles, pretty well.

Ryan died of an opioid overdose in 2011. He was 19. His death has stuck in Farnsworth’s mind ever since.

“When I first came to Tunbridge, I really could not help but think there was actually some sort of ‘pull’ for my being there, and I actually attributed a fair amount of that to Ryan,” Farnsworth said in an email exchange last week. “It was important for me to be there, for him, and for him to be there for me.”

In his last few years working in Hartford — where he counseled and eventually directed the guidance department at the high school, before becoming the director of guidance and counseling for the entire Hartford School District — Farnsworth witnessed opioid use among young people increase at an alarming rate: Within a few years of Ryan’s death, at least two of his peers who’d attended the funeral had fatally overdosed themselves, he said.

“I don’t know if it matters how much training you have,” he said. When a community suffers the loss of a young person, much less a string of these losses, “it’s pretty overwhelming.”

In the wake of numerous student deaths, Farnsworth reached out to a handful of colleagues who could all offer different insights on the traumas the Hartford area had experienced. They gathered “to talk about what we knew and what was happening, and I felt it was so important for us to be together in a room, to look in each other’s eyes and say ‘Are you OK? What do you need for support? And where do we go from here?’ ”

These conversations resulted in the Hartford Multi-Agency Community Council, or MACC, which met regularly and hosted presentations, public forums and movie nights; MACC evolved into the Hartford Community Coalition.

“I think that set in motion any number of things that have helped the Hartford community and professionals around the area,” he said. And in his experience, establishing communitywide support systems is necessary to addressing communitywide challenges, especially when they’re as intractable as opioid addiction.

“You cannot do this alone,” he said. “If you’re a solo counselor at a school, in a district (where) you don’t have a lot of supports, that’s a tough place to be.” He believes a school should not only be staffed with a substance abuse counselor, but should also have consistent, long-term counselors in place who can develop strong relationships with students and families. And build trust.

This is Farnsworth’s third year at Tunbridge Central, a K-8 school of about 110 students. Though Farnsworth is a man who refers to his students as “kiddos,” who describes himself as a “SoRo boy at heart” and who — after a 70-minute interview — sent multiple emails containing multiple pages’ worth of follow-up thoughts, he said the biggest challenge to his transition has been gaining the trust of the very parents he worries about.

Because now, it’s not the kiddos who are showing signs of addiction. It’s the grown-ups — and from where the grown-ups are standing, they may not have much reason to trust him, he acknowledged.

Farnsworth’s predecessor, who was fired following allegations of inappropriate conduct with students, may have shaken some people’s faith in school leadership. But parents with addictions might also have less-than-positive memories of their own school days, Farnsworth said.

“What was their story in high school? … What did they struggle with? What was their social, emotional life? I don’t think any of us, as we get older, forget our own situations in school,” said Farnsworth, who is in his early 50s. “Honestly, many of these parents do not know where to go or what to do. And if they feel me as a threat as an administrator … I cannot make a whole lot of headway with them.”

In regards to opioid use in Tunbridge, Farnsworth thinks “whether it’s up here, or it’s another part of Vermont, or another part of New Hampshire, I don’t think what I see is a whole lot different than some other communities.”

But what he’s seen in the past few years has given Farnsworth a new look at how the effects of opioid abuse are creeping into households, and by extension into school hallways — and how, by the time a child of an opioid-affected home gets to high school, they’re at risk of becoming what Farnsworth would describe, in his counselor days, as “in-school dropouts,” he said.

“I so fear that I could see that look in the eyes of some of my seventh- and eighth-graders, if I’m not careful,” he said. “And having come from the high school level, I reflect on that a lot.”

The signs he watches out for, now, can be subtler than the ones he saw among older students who were themselves using. Children from houses affected by opioid abuse may struggle academically, socially or emotionally. There may be transportation issues. They may come into school in the morning already exhausted. They, and their families, may have food insecurities, which is part of why he sends a number of kids home with backpacks full of food every Friday. Chronic absenteeism can be another red flag.

He’s also noticing how opioids are changing the structure of families. More grandparents are enrolling kids in school, “because they have guardianship now, for reasons that the children had to be taken away from their parents, or the parents may be in treatment now or may be in prison now,” he said. “So to be able to understand how all of that happens in a community, and what’s that impact — how do you support a grandparent? How do you support someone who’s homeless, who is now couch-surfing here or with a relative here?”

With his past experience in mind, he watches his younger students now “with a crystal ball,” he said, “in that I know what’s coming on the horizon for them. I know the pitfalls, the celebrations, and the struggles and the opportunities that await these young students.”

Farnsworth firmly believes that, despite the obstacles created by growing up in an opioid-affected household, all of his kiddos can “make it,” and for him it’s not just a matter of faith. From time to time, he’ll run into one of his former students, who 10 or 15 years ago was in danger of not being OK.

“When I look them in the eye and I say ‘How are you?,’ and they say ‘I’m doing pretty good, Mr. Farnsworth,’ that’s just an incredible thing,” he said. “When you’re a counselor, that doesn’t go away. These kids never leave your heart and your soul, they just don’t.”

Ryan Mullen’s photo no longer sits on Farnsworth’s desk. Instead, it’s found a home in the memorial book he’s made of all the young people he’s ever known, and some he hasn’t known, who the Upper Valley has lost in recent years.

“I cannot tell you what that book, and all of the young folk within it, represents for me. Though his face is not on my desk daily, I do feel Ryan’s presence and his guidance; that book represents some of the most difficult work in my career, and will always be in my presence as long as I am working with young folk and their families,” he wrote.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.