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Multi-agency team awarded $1 million grant to expand implementation of evidence-based substance misuse prevention curricula in public schools and support community coalitions

Project targets students in third to ninth grades and their families in 26 rural counties across Virginia

With a two-year, $1 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), principal investigator Kathy Hosig, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice Research and associate professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences, is leading a multi-agency team to expand existing funded projects to disseminate evidence-based substance misuse prevention curricula in public schools and support community coalitions. 

The “Virginia Cooperative Extension Partnerships for Rural Opioids Technical Assistance” project builds upon two current USDA-funded projects, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) projects, and a SAMHSA-funded VCE project to reduce misuse of opioids and stimulants in rural Virginia using evidence-based universal prevention curricula (Botvin LifeSkills Training Programs) to target students in third to ninth grades and their families in 26 rural counties across Virginia. The project is designed to build life skills for public school students while enabling the significant adults in their lives to support them most effectively in making positive life choices and navigating the turbulent adolescent years.

The project team consists of five regional VCE project coordinators who are facilitating implementation of project activities and supporting local community groups and coalitions that focus on substance use disorder. Additional project partners include the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Office of Behavioral Health Wellness, local community services boards (CSBs), SAMHSA State Opioid Response (SOR) providers and State Targeted Response TA teams, and Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) Office of Student Services. 

The team is utilizing the Botvin LifeSkills Training Program, a substance abuse and violence prevention program based on rigorous scientific research. The school-based component is considered to be the most effective evidence-based program used in schools today and is developmentally designed to promote mental health and positive youth development. In addition to teaching skills to resist drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, the LifeSkills Training also effectively supports the reduction of violence and other high-risk behaviors and is aligned to the National Health Education standards and to CASEL’s social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies. 

The school-based program’s learning objectives include personal self-management skills, general social skills, and drug resistance skills. Students are led to develop skills to help them enhance self-esteem and problem-solving abilities, reduce stress and anxiety, and manage anger. The students are additionally taught skills to meet personal challenges such as communicating clearly, building relationships, and avoiding violence. Through the training, students develop defenses against pressures to use tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.

The Botvin LifeSkills Parent Program is also being utilized to help parents and other significant adults strengthen their communication with the students. Objectives focus on helping involved adults understand the issues related to adolescent drug abuse, how to be good role models and convey a clear anti-drug message, and how to help children develop self-management and social skills.   

The project team anticipates that over 200 public school teachers will be trained to deliver this evidence-based universal prevention curricula, and an additional 20 community members will be trained to deliver the curricula to parents and caregivers in a variety of community settings to reach diverse audiences. The anticipated number of students to be served over the two-year project is 18,425. Approximately 4,500 parents and caregivers are expected to receive the evidence-based parent program, and at least 750 public school staff will receive training in Mental Health First Aid for youth and/or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Previous SAMHSA-funded projects have already shown success. A VCE Project Coordinator reported seeing a teacher help a student navigate a tough family situation utilizing the decision making model and create communication strategies so that the student could present to their family their wishes for the resolution to the conflict. Another VCE Project Coordinator received an email from a community religious leader after their second day of the parent training. She said, “I am already thinking about whether this kind of class has been offered in our low-income apartment complexes...Having a project coordinator in the area, connecting coalitions and community leaders, and offering the parent program creates situations where the project touches the whole community, fostering creative synergies and solutions.”