Leaders from three school districts, speaking at a recent webinar hosted by the U.S. Department of Education, said transparency, partnerships and multipronged approaches are crucial in raising awareness about the dangers of illicit fentanyl use among students.
The Feb. 8 webinar was the second in a two-part series focused on preventing and addressing fentanyl use. The first session, held Jan. 17, featured speakers discussing why fentanyl — a highly potent synthetic opioid — is such a threat to teens and the role schools can play in protecting students by building awareness.
In addition to district administrators, the latest webinar featured representatives from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who spoke about recent trends in illicit fentanyl activity. The administration speakers also addressed evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies and why schools are important partners in these efforts.
Kari Clay, whose daughter Ellison died in August 2021 at age 17 after taking a counterfeit Percocet pill, represented a family's viewpoint in this tragedy. Ellison had no history of drug abuse, Clay said. Her daughter's death led Clay to co-create Fentanyl Information X-Plained (FIX).
"I didn't want to see one more kid lose their future out of curiosity or stress or trust in misinformation," Clay said. The organization works with students, parents, school administrators and teachers to combat myths and misconceptions and to provide resources.
A report released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in 2021, some 6% of high school students had misused prescription opioids such as codeine, Vicodin, OxyContin, Hydrocodone or Percocet during the previous 30 days. Girls were more likely than boys to misuse prescription opioids.
Here's how three school systems said they are working to prevent fentanyl use.
Beaverton School District in Oregon
This 39,000-student Beaverton School District developed its "Fake and Fatal" campaign in response to the deaths of several current and former students due to fentanyl poisoning, said Kristen Gustafson, director of secondary health and PE curriculum, instruction and assessment.
The campaign includes a public statement from the district to all students, staff and parents about the importance of educating students about the fentanyl crisis and mandatory training for principals. The district also developed a web page with resources, conducted a media blitz to raise awareness, and hosted community conversations, Gustafson said.
Since the launch of the campaign, Gustafson said, there have been no reported fentanyl deaths in the district.
"Schools play such a vital role when it comes to our students' overall health and well-being, and we owe it to them and their parents to educate them on the dangers of fentanyl or any other synthetic drugs and all drugs that are coming down the pike," Gustafson said.
Additionally, rather than take punitive approaches, the district added a substance use specialist and social worker to each campus to help students and families find solutions to substance use.
Through classroom lessons, the district aims to strengthen students' social-emotional skills. It also has lessons that explicitly teach about the dangers of fentanyl use. Teacher facilitator guides, developed by the district, assist teachers, even those not specialized in health education, to share lessons about the harms of fentanyl use.
"It's our hope that every district in the country will access all the resources shared today and launch their own fentanyl awareness campaign," Gustafson said.
Hays Consolidated Independent School District in Texas
In spring 2022, the 23,000-student Hays Consolidated school system experienced its first on-campus fatal drug overdose. Then, in the summer and fall of 2022, there were five more drug-related student deaths, five on-campus interventions with naloxone, and 14 suspected off-campus student fentanyl poisonings, said Jeri Skrocki, director of safety and security.
Those tragedies led the district to begin a multidisciplinary approach to prevention and intervention of drug use, including fentanyl abuse. To start, the district hosted a roundtable with fire department representatives, emergency medical technicians, local law enforcement and judges to determine best practices for sharing information about community drug threats and resources.
The district also reached out to students and families to learn what help they needed to prevent fentanyl use. Transparency in prevention approaches was critical, Skrocki said.
"What we wanted to do is have all of these partners standing together as one, and basically, we wanted to be able to help and aid our child that was suffering," Skrocki said. School nurses and local pediatricians were also included in collaborations.
When the district realized apathy still existed around the threat of fentanyl, Skrocki said, it worked with local law enforcement to emphasize to community members that the district was not aiming to put first-time drug users in jail — but to provide resources to prevent more deaths.
"Ultimately, bottom line and what I'll say to anybody who will listen is, 'Please take the time to network with your kids, with your families, and really determine what does your community need and how do they need it and package it that way,'" Skrocki said.
Los Angeles Unified School District in California
The country's second largest school system, with just over 400,000 students, also has a multilayered approach to fentanyl poisoning prevention. Its approach really gained momentum when the Los Angeles district suffered its first on-campus fentanyl overdose in September 2022, said Dr. Smita Malhotra, the district's chief medical director.
By October 2022, Narcan, a brand of naloxone, was in all K-12 schools. It has since been added to early education, adult education and after-school centers. In addition, the district recently adopted a policy allowing students to carry naloxone on school campuses, said Paulina Rock, executive director of the district's Office of Health Emergency Response and Support.
The district's police department also created an app called Los Angeles Schools Anonymous Reporting (LASAR) for reporting any suspected drugs on campuses.
And the district convened a working group to develop informational modules in fentanyl awareness and prevention for students and parents. The four modules cover substance abuse, mental health, psychological first aid and fentanyl.
More work and resources are being developed, including social media posts, podcasts, websites, trainings and webinars, said Malhotra and Rock.
"We know that there is a large education aspect to this," Malhotra said.