In the past several years, members of the Wappingers Congress of Teachers have tried to grapple with the loss of two educators — as well as students and graduates — to addiction.
“When you see that email: ‘We regret to inform you ...’ you are distraught. You are left speechless,” said Pasquale Delli Carpini, union president. “Oh my God.”
Some are upset they didn’t notice the signs — or that they weren’t sure what to do when they noticed their peers arriving late for school or being irritable.
“Shocking” is how Diane DiChiara, a special education English teacher, described feeling about the death of a fellow teacher to addiction. She shook her head in dismay.
“You have to look in their eyes and see how distraught they are,” Delli Carpini said of his colleagues.
In response to members’ concerns, the WCT decided to reverse the hushhush of shame that often accompanies life-threatening problems of alcoholism and addiction and speak out about what the diseases mean, how they affect families and what resources are available. In September, the local union, together with school administrators and the Council on Addiction Prevention and Education of Dutchess County, co-hosted a halfday conversation-changing assembly on the drug addiction epidemic.
The air was charged with facts and emotion during speeches, a documentary and a series of workshops for 1,200 educators, administrators, union leaders, and state and community representatives.
“It’s all about the stigma. We wanted to reduce the stigma, so people aren’t afraid to get help,” said DiChiara. That includes allowing educators to take the time they may need to enter treatment without fear of losing their job.
“It’s become a dreaded disease,” said Delli Carpini. “This is the kind of disease that knows no boundaries. It really can hit anyone.”
“Addiction is a disease, not a disgrace,” said a brave Sue DeCosta, who leaned on her husband Mike as they spoke to educators.
Just nine days before, they lost their 29-year-old son, Michael, a Wappingers graduate, to the disease after years of struggle. “It is a medical condition masquerading as a physical choice. It wrecks families.”
Removing the stigma and shame can correct common misperceptions, she said. She noted that although she and her husband are active, involved parents who gave their four children many tools, they had not made it safe for Michael to talk about his addiction.
When they first realized there was a problem, she said they had “no idea of the beast we just encountered.”
In the hushed auditorium, clutching her prepared speech, DeCosta asked educators and school health professionals to understand the disease enough to suspend judgment of students who are struggling with addiction.
“No one is prepared to raise a child who becomes an addict,” she said.
The language attached to the disease fuels more stigma, explained Elaine Trumpetto, executive director of CAPE of Dutchess County. Addicts are described as either “clean” or “dirty.” Her organization has contracted with the Wappingers district for decades to provide information for educators and students on prevention, education, counseling and recovery services.
The addition of two districtwide programs geared specifically to employees — in 2018 and this year — was about taking action after two educators died from addiction.
Mike and Sue DeCosta lost their 29-year-old son, Michael, to drug addiction this year. They share their story to help end the stigma and correct common misperceptions.
Shortly after the September assembly ended, teachers were already filling out surveys to help union organizers meet their needs for the next professional learning opportunity.
DiChiara said that with the unionled workshops, and training from the Employee Assistance Program for administrators, “We have changed our behaviors” in addressing addiction.
Change the narrative Speaker John Shinholster of the Virginia McShin Foundation said schools should create an environment where a student grappling with addiction could feel free to openly talk to a teacher or school health care professional, “like you send a kid with a cold to the (school) nurse.
“Are we ready to be supportive? Are we ready to love them?” he asked.
The stigma surrounding other diseases like breast cancer and prostate cancer has been greatly reduced, he noted, by fundraising walks and open conversations. The same can be done for addiction.
Several speakers spoke about addiction as a disease that changes the pathways in the brain and makes it difficult for people to stop using the drugs. Stopping drugs and getting treatment can help reroute those pathways.
“We need to educate people about the impact (of drugs) on the brain — it changes the brain chemistry … it’s now defined as a chronic brain disorder,” said Rena Finsmith, a special education social studies teacher, in a conversation before the assembly.
The impact on the family is also staggering — emotionally, mentally, financially and physically.
Wappingers educators screened “The Anonymous People,” a documentary on addiction and recovery, and heard from the filmmaker and an actor.
“This is our black plague,” said Kristen Johnston, an Emmy awardwinning actress and advocate in recovery.
Many speakers in the film and on stage talked about how society often imprisons addicts rather than provide recovery treatment.
The illness does not have a cure — but it has a solution.
“Addiction lives in darkness,” filmmaker Greg Williams told the group.
NYSUT and its local unions can help light the way to change that.
NYSUT President Andy Pallotta and Secretary-Treasurer Philippe Abraham attended the emotional assembly.
“With the foundation you’ve laid, we will bring this around the state,” pledged a somber Pallotta.
Through NYSUT’s social justice work, the statewide union is making a 46-minute version of the film available at no cost to every NYSUT local union across the state to screen.
“This may help our local leaders to start the conversation and continue to shine a light on the disease of addiction,” Abraham said.
For more information, local leaders can contact Paul Webster, NYSUT director of community outreach, at email@example.com.
- NYSUT Social Services is a free, confidential union benefit offered to all NYSUT members, retired and in-service. We can help you utilize your Employee Assistance Program benefit or provide information and referrals for professional assistance in your community, including treatment options for addictive behaviors. Call 800-342- 9810, ext. 6206 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The American Federation of Teachers this year launched an online program, “Combatting the Opioid Crisis,” for educators. Visit aftelearning.org/group/61.
- The New York State HOPEline provides referrals to treatment and prevention providers.
- Available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, call 877-8-HOPENY or text HOPENY (467369).
- The New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services offers several resources including a #CombatAddiction program in conjunction with the State Education Department. Resources include tips for educators and families. For more info, visit combataddiction.ny.gov.
- “The Anonymous People” is a feature documentary film about the 23.5 million Americans living in long-term recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction. This September, the Wappingers Congress of Teachers screened the film for its members and hosted a panel discussion on addiction. The film is available to rent or purchase via several streaming services, including Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and Vimeo.