The students file into the auditorium and settle in for another assembly, expecting the usual – a speaker will tell them to work hard, don’t take drugs and make good choices, etc, etc. They’ve seen it all.

But they haven’t met Derick Cross aka D. Cross. The poet and visual artist takes the microphone and starts beatboxing, using his mouth to make the sounds of drums and record scratches. He then mixes in raps about avoiding opioids and get the students to join in a call-and-response chant.

This is Chasing the Dragon, collaboration between the Performing Arts School at bergenPAC and Hackensack University Medical Center, the FBI-Newark Division, FBI Newark Citizens Academy Alumni Association and Lakeland Bank.

The centerpiece of the assembly is the screening of a documentary called Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, which the FBI and DEA put together.

“Part of the FBI’s mission is to connect with our community through outreach,” said Special Agent Mary Gardocki, who leads students through the video presentation. “It is incredibly moving to witness the reactions of our student audiences. Far too many students break down because they have, unfortunately, been directly affected by the opioid crisis. This just reaffirms how very important this type of educational program is and we hope it is providing knowledge and understanding to everyone who participates.”

The assembly also features Michael A. Kelly, M.D., chair, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine and chair, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Hackensack University Medical Center, who has led national discussions and lectured across the country about the need to minimize the use of opioids.

“Last year, the students who participated were very engaged and attentive to the information we presented," Dr. Kelly said. “It’s incredibly important to educate students, especially at a younger age, on the dangers of these highly-addictive drugs.  If we can save one life, it’s worth it.”

He said Hackensack University Medical Center has worked to offer patients personalized pain management programs in an effort to replace intravenous opioids with a multimodal approach, using several non-opioid agents before, during and after surgery.

At the end of the speakers, D. Cross presents a mural he painted that the school can hang up after all the students sign it as a pledge to avoid opioid abuse. The assembly was introduced in 2018 and has been presented in more schools each year thanks to Lakeland Bank’s support.

“We are honored to be a partner in this unique collaboration and join the other organizations that are all deeply passionate about raising awareness of this major public health crisis in our State,” Thomas Shara, president and chief executive officer of Lakeland Bank, said.

This has proven to be one of the more powerful assemblies in bergenPAC’s educational outreach program.

“Beyond bergenPAC uses performing arts in entertaining and interactive assemblies to deliver important lessons on character-building and good decision-making,” said Dominic Roncace, president and chief executive officer of bergenPAC. “We appreciate our partners’ support of our efforts to have health and law enforcement officials engage the students in a meaningful way.”