We are in the middle of a heroin and opiate epidemic. Young people are dying with alarming frequency.

Health officials say one way young people get caught in the trap of addiction is through prescription painkillers — either prescribed for themselves or illicitly taken from their parents’ medicine cabinets.

It’s bad enough that young people are taking such risks experimenting with drugs found in their own homes. That’s why it is so surprising that a high school teacher and swim coach has been charged with providing a 16-year-old North Andover High School student athlete with OxyContin and Valium.

A teacher and a coach — the kind of person on whom parents rely to provide their children with guidance and positive direction.

Elizabeth Backler, 28, was arraigned Tuesday in Lawrence District Court on three counts of distribution of the narcotics oxycodone and diazepam. She was arrested Monday night in her Newburyport home after the female student and her mother went to police. She pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Oxycodone is the generic form of OxyContin, one of the opioid prescription drugs experts say can lead abusers to heroin addiction. Diazepam is the generic name for Valium, a tranquilizer and muscle relaxant.

The story as presented by prosecutors indicates that Backler, who was the girl’s swim team coach, was giving the girl painkillers to deal with sports-related pain; thus, there appears to be no overt attempt to “deal” drugs to the student. But given that schools have strict policies against staff handing out unauthorized medications to students — let alone prescription medications — the case shows an appalling breach of trust and a punishable crime.

Backler is a former North Andover High School teacher, serving first as a substitute, then as a full-time science teacher for the 2013-2014 school year. She was an assistant swim coach for two seasons through 2015. She is currently a teacher at Amesbury’s Innovation High School, and was placed on paid administrative leave after her arrest.

Backler also coached swimming at the Andover/North Andover YMCA and the Haverhill Country Club.

Prosecutors say Backler was in an “inappropriate” relationship with the student, but there is no indication the relationship involved sex. Prosecutors say Backler texted the girl, sent her cards, took her to dinner, invited her to her apartment and purchased her expensive gifts.

Her work ethic and dedication was praised by some of her employers, but that now matters little in the shadow of these charges. On Tuesday, every television station and media outlet in the state had its cameras and reporters focused on her.

This case emphasizes the crucial importance of maintaining professionalism in education. Educators are held to specific and high standards regarding their interaction with students. Yet at the same time, we also expect that teachers will show personalized care and compassion for their students. There is a line between these two expectations, and according to prosecutors, Backler crossed it.

The topic is a familiar one for Marie Galinski, the director of the Teacher Education Fellowship program at Merrimack College and the former superintendent of schools in Beverly. 

“(My students and I) talk about that student-teacher relationship all the time,” Galinski said Tuesday. “Especially with young teachers who may be close in age to the students they teach. We always remind them there needs to be a professional standard.”

She said maintaining the appropriate distance can be difficult for younger teachers, who may feel like they can easily relate to their students.

“They want to be liked,” Galinski said. “But we try to tell them the difference between making sure students like them and having a professional relationship with their students.

“Teachers really shouldn’t spend time with students outside formal situations,” Galinski said. “Perhaps in a group with several kids, but never on a one-on-one basis. Technically, you want to stay away from situations where you are alone with a student.”

The same rules apply to coaches, she said.

Whatever the outcome of this case, it demonstrates the importance of adhering to professional standards. This is a nightmare scenario for any educator, one that provides a lesson in how crossing the line can lead to terrible consequences.

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