group of young adults in matching shirts standing in front of a wall
Second-year medical students from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University created their own intervention program curriculum that they taught to Tutt Middle School students for drug prevention and intervention. [Photo courtesy Georgia Cancer Center]

NOpioids partnership at Tutt Middle School celebrates conclusion with field day

The United States is facing an opioid crisis of epidemic proportions, but Dr. Marlo Vernon and her team are doing their part to head it off at the pass.

For the past three years, Vernon has worked on intervention programs alongside undergraduate and graduate students from the Cancer Prevention, Control and Population Health Program at the Georgia Cancer Center and the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

Opioids are a factor in at least seven out of every 10 overdose deaths.

From 2010 to 2020, the total number of opioid-related overdose deaths in Georgia increased by 207%. In 2020, 67% of drug overdose deaths in Georgia were related to opioids, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

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Dr. Marlo Vernon is an assistant professor in the Institute of Cancer Prevention, Control and Population Health Program at the Georgia Cancer Center. [Michael Holahan/Augusta University]
Vernon, an assistant professor at the Georgia Cancer Center and MCG, has headed up an intervention program funded by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities at Tutt Middle School from 2019 until this year.

The program featured five institutions within the University System of Georgia partnering with local schools to educate and mentor young people about the problem of opioids and misusing prescription drugs.

While the other four universities and colleges chose to adopt high schools, Vernon and her team selected Tutt Middle School.

“The other schools that have participated in this project chose to intervene at a high school level, but we chose middle school students and I have been really pleased and have had a wonderful time working with them,” Vernon said.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 10.1 million people misused opioids in 2019. The age range for that study began as young as 12, so selecting middle school as the time to intervene made perfect sense to Vernon.

“We used the Georgia Health Student Survey that all students fill out every year, and we saw that middle school students had very low, almost non-existent self-report of using or misusing prescription drugs or opioids,” Vernon said. “As a public health professional, I always want to start from the earliest you can to prevent a behavior, and so that is why we chose to work with middle schoolers.

“It’s been an amazing and fun experience. Everyone at Tutt has been so supportive. Sometimes when you have a project like this, it can be difficult to develop those relationships, but Dr. Tikki Middleton and her teachers have just been amazing.”

Middleton agreed that the partnership was a good opportunity for her school.

“I knew from looking at national news that there is an issue with opioid use, which was part of the appeal to say yes to this partnership,” said Tutt Principal Tikki Middleton, EdD. “This was a great opportunity to bring awareness to what many in our area don’t know about or have overlooked.

“The program has helped spread and solidify education in that area because the children that have participated in the student lead group, they are having conversations with peers, and then when they take the information items home, that sparks conversation as well. What’s exciting for me, it’s not just an isolated school conversation about education and misuse. You get to go home and then the children are able to facilitate that conversation at home and with friends outside of Tutt.”

children standing in a field with a mascot
The intervention program between the Medical College of Georgia and Tutt Middle School concluded with a field day May 12. [Photo courtesy  Georgia Cancer Center]
The partnership, which celebrated its conclusion May 12 with a field day, began in October 2019. The team of students from MCG and Augusta University met with the middle schoolers two or three times a month, usually for about 30-40 minutes Thursday mornings. Occasionally, the meetings included guest speakers, and even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the program was able to keep going virtually.

The student leaders group included representatives from sixth, seventh and eighth grades, all nominated by their homeroom teachers. While students have moved on to high school, the core group has stayed strong and been able to mentor each new group that has come in.

For the last three years, the middle school students in the lead group have placed posters and other educational materials around the school and even worn “Team NOpioids” shirts that say “Ask me about prescription drug safety.” This was a choice made by the middle school students.

students raise their hands in a classroom
The Tutt Middle School student leaders group included representatives from sixth, seventh and eighth grades, all nominated by their homeroom teachers. [Alma Carrillo/Georgia Cancer Center]
Augusta University NOpioids Student leaders used the Strategic Prevention Framework developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to build out a sustainable mentorship and intervention program.

“The primary goal of our project was prevention of opioid use and misuse alongside prescription drug abuse and misuse prevention,” Vernon said. “We trained two different teams of undergraduate and graduate students. Our first team was made up of PAs, PTs and medical students, and then they all graduated.

“Then after Covid, we trained a new team of MCG students who were second years in the Strategic Prevention Framework. They then created their own curriculum that we took into the middle school and then taught that model to the middle school students. The middle school students then developed an intervention for their own school which is specific to their peers using what’s called positive social norming,” Vernon continued. “We did a school-wide survey and we pulled out important themes, and our student leaders from Tutt voted on the themes and the messages they wanted to use to create posters that have been up at the school.”

shirt, cup, sunglasses, calendar, stickers on table
For the last three years, the middle school students in the lead group have placed posters and educational materials around the school and even worn “Team NOpioids” shirts. [Alma Carrillo/Georgia Cancer Center]
Though the partnership has come to a conclusion, both Vernon and Middleton know the groundwork that has been laid will have a lasting, positive impact for years to come.

“One of the goals of this model is sustainability,” Vernon said. “The hope is that the project won’t stop just because the direct involvement from our team is no longer there. The posters and other materials will be at the school’s disposal and they can keep them up and keep rotating them. The students will have this knowledge and ability to communicate these messages within the middle school and they’ll take that with them to high school. And then all of the materials that we have provided to students, parents, faculty, and staff at the school will still be available to them as well.

“While we may not be coming in every week, depending on how the state moves forward with the project, all the messages and the education that we have worked on will still be there with the students in the school.”

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Written by
Milledge Austin

Milledge Austin is a senior communications and marketing strategist for Communications and Marketing at Augusta University. Contact him to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at

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man with glasses standing in front of blue background Written by Milledge Austin

Jagwire is your source for news and stories from Augusta University. Daily updates highlight the many ways students, faculty, staff, researchers and clinicians "bring their A games" in classrooms and clinics on four campuses in Augusta and locations across the state of Georgia.

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