School districts should take a multi-pronged, proactive approach to combating youth drug use and overdoses, particularly now as wide availability of deadlier fentanyl-laced drugs has shifted the drug landscape, said panelists during a Wednesday webinar hosted by The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the U.S. Department of Education.
Local government and school leaders on the panel spoke of how youth drug overdoses and deaths have led their communities to develop policies and activities to raise awareness on the dangers of fentanyl and to put plans in place to prevent fentanyl poisoning.
In Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools, Narcan — a brand of naloxone that reverses an opioid overdose — was administered to 15 students at schools during this academic year, said Mark Hodge, senior administrator of school health services in the county's Department of Health and Human Services.
All of the county's schools have Narcan available, and all students who received it survived their overdoses. Another five students who overdosed off campus died, Hodge said.
Having Narcan available in school is just one strategy, he said.
The county health department has partnered with stakeholders including the school district, police, emergency medical technicians and nonprofit organizations to bring awareness to the issue through community town hall meetings. The county also provides resources and follow-up information for students struggling with drug addiction.
The Beaverton School District in Oregon also has experienced the loss of students due to fentanyl poisoning. Superintendent Gustavo Balderas, who began his post July 2022, attributed the district's “Fake and Fatal” campaign — launched in April 2021 — to the coming together of many community partners, including parents who have lost loved ones.
The campaign includes awareness activities, such as publicly available teacher lesson plans. The district also shifted to a nondisciplinary approach for students struggling with drug use. Instead of being punished, those students are given resources to address their addiction, Balderas said.
"We believe strongly that if we equip young people with knowledge, they will make better choices," Balderas said.
Ensuring students’ health and safety
Kate King, president-elect of the National Association of School Nurses, agreed that a multi-pronged approach — with prevention education, emergency preparedness and awareness building — is needed to help communities combat the drug threat. If there's community reluctance in any of these areas, King suggested schools openly discuss their concerns about the harmful effects drugs can have on students.
"It's just part of what we do to make sure that children are healthy, safe and ready to learn," King said.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told panelists they want to learn more about how localities address youth drug use so the federal government can support these efforts.
"We know our schools right now are on the front lines of fighting the fentanyl epidemic, and we have to join forces," Cardona said. The fentanyl epidemic is "changing lives, is taking lives, it's impacting families. It's influencing our students' ability to be their best selves, so we need to come together with that same urgency, that same passion, that we did three years ago when we were trying to reopen our schools.