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Lena I. Jackson
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Overdose deaths caused by fentanyl are on the rise across the country. It’s especially grim for young people, with more than 75 percent of adolescent overdose deaths in 2021 involving the powerful synthetic opioid. In response, many schools have stocked up on Narcan, a medication used to reverse overdoses. Stephanie Sy reports from Sacramento, where Narcan is now available at all K-12 schools.
Overdose deaths from fentanyl are on the rise across the country, and it's especially grim for young people. More than 75 percent of adolescent overdose deaths in 2021 involved the opioid.
Schools and cities from Baltimore to Tucson are stocking up on Narcan, a medication use to reverse overdoses.
Stephanie Sy reports from Sacramento, where Narcan is now available at all K-12 schools.
We met this mom in a park in Sacramento. She didn't want to be identified because her 15-year old son is still battling drug addiction. He was taking counterfeit Percocets.
What they do is, they crush the pill and put it on foil and light it and inhale the smoke. And so that's how they get the high.
She caught it early and intervened. He's one of the lucky ones.
There are a number of prominent stories in the area of teens who were doing exactly what my son was doing, except they are not alive anymore.
Pictures of those teens were put up in this high school gymnasium in Sacramento, California, as a handful of parents listened to an information session about fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Kristel Suchland, Sacramento County Supervising Criminalist:
Over 16,000 grams just in a Sac County.
Kristel Suchland, a criminalist for the county, has run tests on street drugs that have recently been seized in the area.
Everything that we are seeing pill-wise, 98 percent, 99 percent of them are not what they look like. They are fentanyl. That's what we try to tell the kids is, if you're getting it off the street, you do not know what you're getting, because it is showing up in everything you in everything.
You think you are getting an oxycodone tablet. It's fentanyl.
Organized by a partnership between the group Arrive Alive California and Sacramento County health and law enforcement officials, the presentation was as much about the dangers of fentanyl as it was a pitch for Narcan, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses.
California schools have started talking about putting Narcan…
Romaine Jones, a father of a high school student, was among the concerned parents listening in.
Romaine Jones, Father:
And they got the power. And they can put the powder on whatever, and you could get your kid — the kids can get addicted that way, which I think they also should stress that a lot more than just the one-pill deal, because it's on everything.
Jones took a dose of the Narcan nasal spray made available for parents with him as he left.
Fatal drug overdoses among teens nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 492 deaths to 954 deaths. Last year, there were 1,146 adolescents who died, the alarming rise largely due to illicit fentanyl. The Drug Enforcement Agency says the influx of rainbow fentanyl, multicolored pills that look like candy, has been a deliberate attempt by drug traffickers to drive addiction in kids and young adults.
In September, a 15-year-old girl, Melanie Ramos, was found dead of an overdose in the bathroom of a Southern California high school. Her death set off alarms in schools across the state. And many, like C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento, are now putting Narcan on campus.
Students we talked had mixed reactions to making Narcan more available. Eli Aten is the student body president.
Eli Aten, Student:
If there are kids doing drugs like that, you need some way to help them. Like, you can't just let them die on the scene.
But I get that it could just be helping the problem, because people could get their hands on Narcan to help facilitate their drug use.
There is no evidence that making Narcan available in schools would increase opioid use.
Senior Micah Rea thinks having Narcan around is a good idea, adding that many students may not know what they're really getting when they buy pills.
Micah Rea, Student:
I wouldn't say it's easy to get. I think more so it's easy to mistake, because, like, let's say a student was like, oh, I want to go get this, this weekend, and they don't understand that it's — could be laced with fentanyl, and then they take it with their friends, and then someone could O.D.
I think that's how it'd be more popular, more common.
Caroline Schrader, School Nurse, C.K. McClatchy High School:
Shortness of breath is a big one.
We were at C.K. McClatchy as the school nurse, Caroline Schrader, prepared the campus for Narcan.
So this is one of the signs?
Exactly. We started putting these up that we can notify anybody that's in the hallways that we have the Narcan here readily available.
We picked the wellness center and the student center because this is where we have a lot of traffic. A lot of kids come through here. They know it. It's a general area to come.
Schrader, a former ICU nurse, says street fentanyl is unpredictable, and having Narcan is as important for saving lives as having EpiPens for kids with deadly allergies.
A lot of your overdoses don't happen with your addicts. They happen more with your first-time users too. They are taking one dose and dying.
Twenty-seven states, the ones highlighted here in green, have amended laws to make it easier for K-12 schools to carry Narcan. And school staff who have to administer the antidote are generally protected from liability by existing laws.
Having Narcan readily available in American schools reflects the severity of the continuing opioid crisis and many told us the continuing fallout from the pandemic.
Aaron Perry, Student Support Center, C.K. McClatchy High School:
The ability to cope went away. The anxiety, the depression spikes. And I do think were in a mental health crisis, because the average person experiences anxiety more than they did three years ago.
Student Support Center coordinator Aaron Perry often deals directly with students who have been caught with substances. Perry says, since the pandemic, he's noticed more kids self-diagnosing and self-medicating.
Someone on social media would say, hey, this is what I have. You might have it too. The student would pick up on it, say, well, I kind of exhibit the same characteristics as you.
And then they will say, well, how do I treat this? And then that's when they will start.
Have you had any overdoses here?
Not as of yet. There's been some close calls.
Teens didn't start using more drugs during the pandemic. In fact, research shows they used them less frequently.
The high rate of deaths are evidence of fentanyl's potency. As little as two milligrams can be fatal, and it is being sprinkled into other drugs, including heroin, cocaine and meth. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Agency says the danger is growing for teens because of social media networks like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube.
Online dealers, known as plugs, put up drug-themed social media posts that may contain coded emojis to let someone know they're selling prescription pills or other drugs and to get past community guidelines. The teens can directly message the dealers through the in-app chat function.
Back at the park, the mom whose son fell into substance addiction says that was how her son obtained pills.
This is one of the drug dealers showing his product on social media.
She says Narcan is only a Band-Aid and that more needs to be done.
It is not the answer. I feel like we are at a crisis point getting to the root of this problem, whether it is cartel pills getting across the border or education for children and parents, more law enforcement. It's going to take a village.
Her son is currently attending an intensive outpatient treatment program for teens struggling with mental health and substance abuse problems.
It's also not something that just happens overnight. It is a long journey, a long road that will continue.
A long road that many parents, teens, and now schools are facing, with no clear destination in sight.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Sacramento, California.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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