A preliminary report from the Minnesota Department of Health revealed a startling increase in drug overdose deaths, though the numbers in greater Minnesota were barely changed.
According to preliminary data, which is likely to change before the report is finalized, 761 Minnesotans lost their lives to drug overdoses last year. That’s a 20% jump from 2018 and 4% more than the state’s previous high in 2017.
According to preliminary figures, 483 of those overdose deaths occurred in the metro, with the other 286 spread among Minnesota’s 80 other counties. Seven of those 286 deaths took place in Rice County, two in Steele County, according to numbers provided by the MDH to the Daily News.
The number of drug overdose deaths has grown from less than 150 in 2000, when the state first began tracking them. The number of overdoses has always been highest in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, and the gap has only increased in recent years.
Rising drug overdose rates are hitting Minnesotans of color particularly hard. The report showed that drug overdose rates were 2.5 times higher for African-Americans than whites, and six times higher for Native Americans.
A majority of those overdoses were attributable to opioids, with synthetic opioids overdose deaths increasing by almost 50%. Deaths attributed to methamphetamines and other psychostimulants also increased by 37%.
Through tight prescription guidelines, the DEA and other federal agencies have sought to decrease the number of opioid prescriptions. As a result, opioid prescription rates have declined every year since 2011, though synthetic opioids have been on the rise. Minnesota has a particularly low rate of opioid prescriptions, but the state has still had its issues with the opioid crisis. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, opioid prescription overdose deaths rose by an astonishing 681% from 2000 to 2017.
Certain regions of the state, especially northern Minnesota, have been hit harder by the opioid crisis.
Locally, Rice County Family Services Collaborative received a $210,000 Opioid Response grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Administered by Rice County Social Services, the grant has attempted to tackle the opioid crisis in two major ways. First, it’s focused on expanding access to suboxone, a prescription drug used to help people wean off an opiate addiction.
In order to prescribe suboxone, a care provider must have undergone special training. In Rice County, as throughout Greater Minnesota, a qualified care provider can be hard to come by, so part of the grant is helping to pay for Rice County-based care providers to undergo training needed to prescribe the medication.
It also enabled the creation of a new Opioid Mobile Support team to provide comprehensive care for those struggling with opioid addiction. It’s a uniquely collaborative effort, with staff from a long list of community organizations, health care facilities and public safety departments.
Local numbers for drug overdose deaths are incomplete and hard to come by. Due to data privacy restrictions, the state’s “comprehensive” report on drug overdose deaths doesn’t include any-county specific numbers for years since 2016.
Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn said he’s worried about what preliminary reports for 2020 might show. Data is already trickling in from some states across the country, and it certainly isn’t good. According to an analysis by the White House Drug Policy office, overdose rates in the first four months of 2020 increased by 11.4% over the first four months of 2019.
Dunn, who currently serves as president of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, said that illicit drugs tend to be more accessible in major metropolitan areas like the Twin Cities. Faribault and Owatonna’s location along I-35 does pose a challenge, however.
Paul LaRoche, a sergeant with the Rice County Sheriff’s Office who currently serves as Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force commander, said he’s seen an increase in local drug overdoses.
LaRoche said that Rice County has had significant success in holding perpetrators of illicit drugs accountable. In recent days, the ounty Attorney’s Office has filed charges against Owatonna resident Kelly Ann Tysdale and Faribault’s Chad Allen Smith for providing heroin to an overdose victim.
Blake Arthur Brinkman, of Faribault, was charged just days later with selling meth twice to the same person in four days. Also charged last month were Jerann Anthony Gainous, of Dundas, and Scott Matthew Tuomala, of Faribault, for selling fentanyl-laced heroin in January 2019 to a Faribault man who overdosed on the drug.
Jeff Wurzel of the Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force, which serves the St. Peter and Mankato, said he hasn’t seen a significant increase in cases. However, Wurzel did note that counterfeit oxycodone pills caused several particularly dangerous overdoses recently.
“Generally, we get about two cases a week,” he said. “It’s not nearly as bad here as it is in the metro.”
Class sizes are growing and becoming more diverse, but teachers, especially teachers of color, are getting harder and harder to find in Minnesota.
But now, new classes are coming to local schools, including Faribault, Owatonna, Tri-City United, Le Sueur-Henderson, Waseca and more, which aim to help students pursue a career in education and encourage young students of color to consider teaching as a profession. It's a new approach in trying to grow a teacher field, both in diversity and in general.
Grow Your Own
The new curriculum is being made possible from a competitive grant through a state program called Grow Your Own. In partnership with Minnesota State University, Mankato, eight school districts (Faribault, Owatonna, Le Sueur-Henderson, Tri-City United, St. Peter, Waseca, Mankato and Centennial) received $376,000 from the MDE to offer a new class to high school students.
The class, titled Exploring Careers in Education, is a college-level class that will be offered to high school students next year. Within the course, students will not just learn about teaching but a variety of careers in education. Students can earn three college credits transferable to MNSU and also receive hands-on experience.
“Our classes will have something like a student teaching experience,” said Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School Principal Brian Thorstad. “When someone is in college, they get to go out and student teach and have that experience. We look forward to offering those types of experiences on a smaller scale.”
Unlike the other districts, Owatonna will be using grant monies to pilot a different course: Introduction to Critical Race Theory in Education. Because the district already has an Intro to Education course, Critical Race Theory was selected as a class that could increase Owatonna’s education career-based offerings. Like the other course, this class will be implemented in cooperation with MNSU and will be worth three college credits.
School districts hope that these classes will create a student-to-teacher pipeline. By offering college credit to high school students, the program intends to give local students a head start at earning their teacher’s license. Creating educational experiences locally may also lead students, particularly students of color, to consider teaching in their communities.
“It’s to recognize that there are viable opportunities for their future careers right here in our community,” said Teri Preisler, a former Owatonna educator who retired as Tri-City superintendent in June. “Just like we’ve been doing job shadows and partnerships with our skill trade employers and health services. It’s for students in the educational pathway to explore and experience education as a career and they may then consider coming back into our area … If we are able to attract them to come back at some point to the communities of Tri-City United, that’s a thriving win for everyone.”
Pipeline programs like Grow Your Own have seen significant success in Minnesota. In a 2019 report from the Minnesota Department of Education, 17% of school districts surveyed reported that pipeline programs made a big difference in their efforts to recruit standard licensed teachers, while another 70% said it made some or a slight difference.
Finding effective strategies to recruit and retain teachers is becoming more important than ever for schools in Minnesota. More than half of Minnesota schools districts in 2019 reported that they have been receiving significantly less applications and more than 40% see it as a major problem.
“Sometimes you’re not able to fill a position with someone who has all of their licensures, so you need to use variances or work through pathways or other means of licensure,” said Preisler. “We have a reduced pool and you got to move very quickly and sometimes you just want to make sure you have a pool of a size that garners the highest possible quality candidates. We have been fortunate to find high-quality candidates for our positions, but it’s getting harder.”
Preisler mentioned that one of the challenges with recruiting teachers is that public schools often have limited budgets to work with. A district that is reliant on mostly on state aid, as well as an operating levy, has to balance its funding while offering a competitive salary and benefits.
One cause of the shortage is that many qualified teachers simply aren’t teaching. The MDE found that in 2019, more than half of teachers with an active license (52%) were not working in Minnesota public schools.
Shortages also limit the availability of teachers with specialized skills. More than 10% of teachers specializing in subjects like hospitality service, careers like transportation, medicine and manufacturing, computer science, theater and dance, autism, as well as languages, like Chinese, Arabic, Latin and Hmong, are teaching under special permission or out of compliance.
“The number of applicants for each position really depends on what teaching position is posted, some positions get more applicants than others,” said Thorstad.
The Le Sueur-Henderson principal said that while candidate pools have been smaller, in the year since he started his position, the school has been able to find high quality candidates.
“I think, overall, we always want the largest candidate pool possible so that we can select the best of the best from the candidate pool to go through our interview process,” said Thorstad. “Ultimately, that’s what positively impacts students the most is hiring the best of the best to be teachers.”
Another goal of the Grow Your Own program is to help more students of color pursue careers as educators. Diversity in teaching remains a major issue all across Minnesota, with student bodies being far more diverse than their teachers.
Between all the MEP districts, 24% of the student body come from diverse backgrounds, while just 2.7% of teaching staff are non-white. In 2018-19, almost 52% of Faribault students are non-white; in Owatonna it's about 25 percent. In both districts, the percentage of teachers of color is even lower than the group's average. In Faribault it's 1.4% and in Owatonna it's 2%.
“Teachers of color matter for all students, especially students of color,” said Anne Marie Leland, community education director for Faribault Public Schools and the grant writer on behalf of MEP. “Over the last decade, studies have shown the benefits of having teachers of color and the positive impact on students’ academic performance, graduation rates, social and emotional well-being and more students of color indicating their desire to attend and be successful in college.”
But school districts all across Minnesota have found difficulties in recruiting teachers of color. Just 4.2% of teachers in Minnesota are from diverse backgrounds. While classes have grown more diverse, the number of teachers of color in Minnesota has remained stagnant.
Grow Your Own aims to increase the number of people of color pursuing education by giving them an early pathway.
“The conversation that we’re having now and around equity, this is one significant step forward for these eight districts and Mankato in partnership for our students of color,” said Faribault's Leland.
An MDE survey found that a larger share (9%) of school districts that implemented pipeline programs saw big differences in hiring people of color compared to school districts employing financial incentives, competitive salaries and posting position offerings outside their local areas. About 40% of school districts with pipeline programs reported some or a slight difference in recruitment, but 50% have seen no differences at all.
Retaining teachers of color is also an issue for school districts. Since 2000, turnover rates for teachers of color have been higher than the turnover rates of white teachers.
A report from Teach Plus, titled “If You Listen We Will Stay: Why Teachers of Color Leave and How to Disrupt Teacher Turnover” surveyed 88 teachers of color on challenges they faced in the workforce. The report, which was cited by Leland in her research applying for the grant, found five significant obstacles teachers of color run into.
First, respondents to the survey reported hostile work cultures where their ideas and contributions were undervalued compared to their white peers. They reported feeling unrecognized for their work and not being given room to adapt lessons to better fit their students. A general lack of support and the high financial and psychological costs that come with being a teacher also contributed to their decisions to leave.
Thorstad hoped that the Grow Your Own program would help create a more diverse workforce, but added that it would take some time for the effects to be realized.
“One component of this program is that some districts have offered this course in the past in association with other programs such as AVID and I believe they have seen a certain level of success,” said Thorstad. “These are the first steps in addressing these issues with this specific grant. It takes a little bit longer for students to gain interest in the career field of education and then obviously multiple other steps have to happen after leaving this course and leaving this school district … I think it, unfortunately, takes years sometimes before we see impacts of this.”
A new program intended to reduce opioid addiction in Rice County is reportedly showing significant signs of progress.
The initiative, the Rice County Integrated Opioid Response Project, has reportedly resulted in more than 50 people being referred to local services that support opiate use disorder treatment and recovery.
“Providers in Rice County have been desperate for these services for over 10 years, and we have worked with clients in crisis who have struggled to get the services they need and deserve,” said Yvette Marthaler, a Rice County chemical health social worker. “The Opioid Response Project provides treatment and hope for people and our community.”
Joy Riggs, Northfield Healthy Community Initiative communications director, said the initiative is being undertaken with the Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition and is supported through a $210,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.
The project is seen as a two-part system that aims to get people into treatment more quickly and help them overcome barriers to recovery.
One component of the project includes increasing local access to medication-assisted treatment, by increasing the number of providers who can prescribe suboxone (a drug used to treat opioid disorders) and by allowing for more sites where people can get suboxone.
Before the project began, the treatment was only available at Northfield Hospital + Clinics Opiate Agonist Therapy Clinic in Lonsdale. Now, it is available at HealthFinders-Faribault, and the treatment will be in use at two additional sites later this year. One additional provider now prescribes Suboxone, and three more are completing the required training.
The other component of the initiative, the Mobile Opioid Support Team, involves the coordination of a support team that formed to help people access treatment and needed transportation resources, emergency funding, and other assistance to successfully recover. The team involves 18 agencies representing health care, law enforcement, social services, and substance abuse treatment.
Law enforcement officers within Rice County can now refer people with opioid addiction to treatment providers, allowing those who are dependent on opioids to get clean in inpatient or outpatient settings.
“That’s important,” said Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson. “That has been a struggle for many years.”
Emily Carroll, director of clinical care and a certified nurse practitioner at HealthFinders-Faribault, said having a nearby place for treatment improves the chances for someone suffering from an addiction to recover.
Carroll and Marthaler said Team Coordinator Jessica Bakken, with Mayo Clinic Health System-Fountain Centers, continues providing needed support for people during the pandemic. Isolation is seen as a barrier to recovery.
“The team is successful because it has a clear mission, a high level of collaboration, and a strong commitment from all Rice County partners,” Marthaler said.
A needed resource
Northfield Police Chief Monte Nelson said the programs are “a good example of the strong partnerships across Rice County.”
He added grant funding especially helps smaller communities, because larger cities have more staff resources to tackle opioid overdoses.
“It’s been more successful than we first thought it would be,” he said of the initiative.
Despite the positive developments, Nelson said the county could face a challenge in sustaining the program on a long-term basis once grant funding ends.
Opioid overdoses involving heroin, prescription drugs or fake prescriptions continue across the U.S. Locally, the Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force is continuing to investigate those who sell illicit opioids.
The reasons for the continuing problem are numerous. Sometimes, addiction stems from an initial legitimate prescription. The crisis is seen as being further fueled from the significant amounts of illicit drugs continuing to flow across the southern border and the prevalence of the powerful substances fentanyl and carfentanil in heroin.
According to local law enforcement departments, overdoses have been on an uptick so far in 2020.
According to Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn in a recent article, deputies have responded to at least five overdoses so far in 2020, compared to three in 2019, five in 2018 and one in 2017. Dundas Police Chief Wade Murray says his city has had two overdoses since 2017, neither were fatal. According to Northfield Police Department Specialist Laura Kraskey, Northfield police have responded to at least seven overdoses so far this year, which is already more than the six they responded to in 2019. In 2018, police were called to four, and in 2017, two.
To Nelson, it’s difficult to say whether the opioid crisis can be solved. He said though that currently unanswerable question, local organizations can continue working together to try to reduce the number of deaths caused by illicit drugs. He also views lobbying work at the state and federal levels as necessary to allow for more treatment options.
Despite the continuing challenges, Nelson believes the region is in a better place to combat opioid overdoses than 10 years ago.
Children from area elementary schools knew him as “Farmer Kevin,” the man who visited their class to talk about soybeans, corn and pigs as well as farmers’ impact on the world.
For the past two decades, Kevin Estrem, of Northfield, not only brought his love of agriculture to the classroom but embraced the four “F’s” — faith, family, friends and farming — to make a difference in his community and beyond.
“He had an impact on pretty much everyone he met,” said Derek Estrem, one of Kevin’s sons.
On June 29, at age 60, Kevin died at his Nerstrand home after battling cancer for 13 and a half months. While planning the wake and funeral, his wife Leanne said hearing “Kevin stories” from those whose lives he touched helped her through the pain.
“To think he touched so many lives is amazing,” said Leanne.
Kevin’s agriculture education began about two decades ago at Sibley Elementary School in Northfield, where his son Derek was a student. In fourth-grade, Derek’s teacher asked students if any of their parents wanted to visit the classroom and talk about what they do. Kevin stepped up to the plate, not realizing his talk on farming would be the first of many he gave for over two decades.
One of his signature classroom stories, was when Kevin would tell students about the time he was severely burned as a 15-year-old. The doctors used pig skin for the grafting, so Kevin explained to students that pigs saved his life. In addition, Kevin talked about fire and farm safety and how farmers help people and feed the world. He also opened up the floor to students so they could ask questions. Girl Scouts helped Kevin package treat bags to hand out to the children, and he gave back to that organization.
Kevin’s agriculture education extended to Faribault, Lonsdale, Elko New Market and even the metro area. Through an organization called Provider Pals, Leanne said Kevin landed opportunities to teach about farming to students in New York, Florida and California. Leanne accompanied Kevin on his New York trip, which she called “the best trip ever.” She laughed as she recalled him holding the subway doors open for the group of teachers — something the locals had never seen.
In addition to educating students about farming, Kevin enjoyed working at pork stands for local events like the Rice County Fair and Defeat of Jesse James Days. He would hire 4-H and FFA members to work the stands so they could give the proceeds to their organizations.
In the community, Kevin attended Northfield’s Church of St. Dominic, belonged to the Knights of Columbus, served as president and board member of the Rice County and Minnesota Pork Producers, and the Rice/Dakota County Soybean Producers Association. Throughout the years, Kevin won a number of awards, like Farm Family of the Year, as well as recognition on behalf of the Rice County Pork Producers.
Reuben Bode, a retired Minnesota Pork Board member, said Kevin was a mentor to him while serving as chair of the board. As a leader, Bode said Kevin made the two-hour meetings fly by.
“He was very easy to get along with,” said Bode of Estrem. “He would lead the meetings, and there would always be a little humor in there, just to keep people kind of relaxed … he’s just never offended anyone that I’m aware of, and I think that’s a big say already.”
Brad Hennen, who served on the Minnesota Pork Board around the same time as Kevin, added: “At meetings, he always provided input from his experience and his insight into things that would be beneficial to not only our industry but to our customers.”
Over their time on the Pork Board, Hennen said he observed Kevin extend his generosity of time and money to his family, community and the pork industry. He recalls Kevin hosting a community-wide event on his farm to give others a chance to learn about agriculture and share a meal.
“Throughout farming in general, we shared a lot of common interests,” said Hennen. “We both enjoyed farming, enjoyed grilling pork, and I very much think we had a lot of the same interests and values and so forth. So I considered Kevin a good friend.”
‘Back in the day’
The son of Willard and Bernice Estrem, Kevin grew up in Nerstrand with five older brothers and one younger sister. Mark, the second oldest, remembers them fishing for bullheads, bailing hay and helping their mom check the chicken eggs. All of them were more interested in farming than sports, he said.
After graduating from Northfield High School in 1977, Kevin attended South Central College in Faribault and began Estrem Trucking. He met Leanne on a blind date in 1981. Although reluctant, Leanne agreed to the date at Red Lobster, which she considered a fancy restaurant “back in the day.” After one date, she thought to herself, “I met my future husband.”
“I’m lucky,” said Leanne. “What if I had never said yes on that blind date? It’s just amazing how one man can change your life and make it expand.”
Leanne was right — she and Kevin married May 19, 1984 at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield. They lived on Kevin’s family farm and raised their two sons, Derek and Michael.
As a young child, Derek remembers looking forward to weekends when he woke up at 5 a.m. with his dad to do chores. They drank their morning beverages first — hot chocolate for him and coffee for his dad — and then Derek liked pressing the conveyor buttons and hauling grain, among other tasks.
Now a deputy sheriff for Rice County, Derek said his dad encouraged whichever path he took, whether it was farming or going into law enforcement. Kevin showed him how to put others first and abide by the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you want done unto you.
In turn, Derek was instrumental in his dad’s decision to join the Nerstrand First Responders. Kevin already served on the Northfield Rural Fire Board, and Derek encouraged his dad to undergo the same first responder training he had completed.
Kevin continued Estrem trucking until 1986, when he started working at Malt-O-Meal. In 1990, Kevin and his brother David became partners in the family farm. Mark had his own farm but also helped with his brothers’ operation.
“He was very positive and always happy,” said Mark. “He very seldom had a negative thing to say about anybody, which we all try to do and learned from our parents.”