INDIANAPOLIS — The Washington Township School District is investigating an incident involving students taking drug-laced candy on campus. The principal of Eastwood Middle School sent a message to families Tuesday asking them to talk about the risks of drug use with their kids.

In his message, Principal James Tutin wrote: “Unfortunately, the days of accepting a piece of candy from a friend may need to end.”

A group of students received medical attention after they ate candy laced with what administrators say was an unknown drug – causing those students to show signs of being under the influence.

I hope this communication finds you and your family doing well. I am writing to you as a concerned member of your community, to shed light on a matter of utmost importance that affects the safety and well-being of our Eastwood students. The purpose of this correspondence is to raise awareness about the dangers posed by drug use and to urge you to have an open dialogue with your children – educating them about the risks associated with drugs. Today, we learned of an incident involving multiple students, in which an edible candy laced with an unknown drug was distributed to students here at school. Students who ingested this substance showed signs of being under the influence, and medical attention was provided to those students. Families were informed and additional medical treatment was sought out as an investigation ensued. While we are still investigating the incident, I felt it important to share information with you so that you can have these conversations with your child today. This is a good reminder to all families that our children have influences around them that threaten their welfare. With the access to illegal substances becoming more and more prevalent, our students can find themselves in some vulnerable situations. Having candid conversations with your children about how to navigate these situations, even if they never encounter them, is more important than ever. Unfortunately, the days of accepting a piece of candy from a friend may need to end. Not only can they endanger the health of our students, but the disciplinary consequences can be extensive. Students who are caught bringing drugs into our school for distribution to others are being recommended for expulsion. We all want a school that is absent of these dangers, and it is up to all of us to do everything we can to prevent this from happening.

Eastwood Middle School Principal James Tutin

IU School of Public Health experts have been keeping track of substance use among Indiana youth and found a significant decrease between 2020 and 2022.

“These were actually among the lowest rates we’d observed since this Indiana survey had begun in the late 1980s,” Jon Agley, an IU School of Public Health associate professor and Deputy Director of Research at Prevention Insights, said.

Agley explained while the news is positive, it’s too early to say whether it’ll last. One theory is that the pandemic hindered adolescents’ access to drugs. The next Indiana Youth Survey will be completed next year, and Agley predicts the results could go one of a couple of ways.

“One is that some substances may start to increase to some degree, to kind-of pre-pandemic levels,” Agley said. “Other substances are starting to look like they may stay flat.”

Agley said during the last survey when eighth graders who reported using marijuana were asked where they got it from, the most common answer was from friends. He also said an important key to prevention is identifying reasons why individual kids are taking drugs.

“If you assume why a student did something and then you react based on that assumption, you may be correcting for something that’s not actually the driver of the behavior, right?” Agley explained. “If I assume to eat edible candy, my child wanted to rebel and I react accordingly – if my child is actually rebelling, then sure, there’s that linkage. But if the use is motivated by some other reason, then I’ve not really accomplished anything.”

A group of educators at Hope Academy – a tuition-free high school for students recovering from substance use – is working on an early intervention program targeting middle schoolers. The school recently received a $280,000 grant from Mental Health America of Indiana, which they’ll use to hire full-time therapists, contract with an occupational therapist to “guide students through a 12-week curriculum twice a year” and hire two peer recovery coaches.

“Our kids want to feel different, want to feel altered. They’re willing to take whatever,” Executive Director Rachelle Gardner said. “The marketers of these substances are very good at what they do. They market them to look like candy.”

Gardner said kids have been turning to drugs at a younger age over time, creating long-term consequences.

“[A substance] could have fentanyl in it. In today’s world, everything could have fentanyl in it,” Gardner said. “Even if you think you trust the person that you got it from, you don’t know what’s in it. It could be a choice that may be your last choice.”

Eastwood Middle School administrators say students who are caught distributing drugs are recommended for expulsion. Gardner hopes that through the pilot program, her team will be able to prevent suspension or expulsion from happening by communicating with middle schoolers about the reality of drug use: “What’s going on with them, the reasons why they’re using, the repercussions of using – and help them to maybe not move into the next phases of a drug use.”

Gardner’s advice to parents is not to assume your kids don’t have access to information about drugs. Then talk about it together.

“They may blow us off and say ‘Oh that’s not true.’ but the more adults are telling them the same stories, the more they may start to understand that and start to hear that,” Gardner said. “There’s a lot going on in our world and in our jobs. If we see something that we feel is uncomfortable, we need to have that conversation. Because if we don’t, we don’t know what the repercussions are going to be.”