Tragic teen deaths prompt California schools to finally fight fentanyl crisis

Tragic teen deaths prompt California schools to finally fight fentanyl crisis

Laura Didier has lost count of the number of times she has described her son’s death.

One afternoon in December 2020, Zach’s father found him slumped over his desk and tried to revive him until paramedics arrived, but it was too late. The screaming father told first responders not to give up and took his defibrillator to try to bring his son back to life. When he finally looked up, he saw the firefighters and the paramedic crying, he curled up in a fetal position on the floor.

Didier received the phone call shortly after.

His 17-year-old son, the college star of the high school musical, athlete and honor roll student, had ingested the equivalent of a few grains of fentanyl sand, hidden in what the teen thought was a Percocet pill. . He fell forward, unconscious, his lips turning blue and she took his last breath from him.

That day, Zach became one of an exponentially growing number of young people who accidentally overdosed on a drug they can’t see, taste or smell, hidden in a pill they thought was something else.

Yet many California schools are only now grappling with the fentanyl crisis, with officials rushing to respond with mentions of the deadly drug in health classes or boxes of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan stocked in administrative offices.

The most proactive districts have been galvanized into action by the tragedy.

Everyone should be shouting warnings from the rooftops, Didier said.

Mom Rocklin still cries when she shares Zach’s story, which she does whenever she can. She speaks at school assemblies or parent information nights, delivering an emotional punch to convey risk.

“It is very difficult to tell it again and relive it. It’s very, very hard,” she said. “What is more difficult is to hear that more children are dying.”

Since this school year began, she has told about 18,000 students in Placer and neighboring counties about her son’s death at school assemblies she helped organize.

However, it wasn’t until last week that the state’s top education official alerted district officials to the crisis and urged them to act.

In recent years, the number of bereaved parents like Didier has continued to grow, reflecting the alarming rise of fentanyl found in communities across California and the country.

In 2021, nearly 7,000 people statewide died from a fetanyl overdose.

In 2018, there were 36 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the state among those under the age of 19. In 2021, there were 240, including 16 deaths of children who did not reach their 10th birthday. Those numbers don’t include the largest number of teens who took a deadly pill, fell unconscious, but survived with timely medical intervention.

The vast majority of these children had no idea that they were taking the drug.

Parents and drug experts have joined a growing call to educate children, teens and families about the dangers of fatal fentanyl overdoses, particularly the black market for counterfeit pills that look like other drugs.

Didier has been speaking out about the risk of fentanyl for nearly two years, telling Zach’s story over and over again. How she said goodbye to him in the morgue, touching his hair and forehead, the only parts that weren’t covered by a sheet, and that still looked like him, they told him.

Despite this tragedy repeating itself over and over again, it was only last week that California’s top school official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, sent a letter about the crisis to superintendents, principals, and other leaders.

“In 2012, California suffered 82 tragic deaths attributed to fentanyl overdoses, and last year that number rose to more than 6,000,” Thurmond said in an Oct. 27 letter. “I encourage all local educational agencies to take immediate action to educate students, staff and families so that we can prevent the unintended use of this deadly drug.”

In Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest district in the country, authorities acted only after nine students overdosed on fentanyl during the first two weeks of school this fall, including one who died. Each of LAUSD’s 1,400 schools will soon feature Narcan, a nasal spray that reverses the effects of the drug, in addition to developing awareness programs for students and parents.

In San Francisco, the word fentanyl isn’t found in a search on the district’s website, even though officials said high school students learn about opioids, overdoses and specifically fentanyl in a required health class. High school students are not exposed to that information.

The district is working to get Narcan into middle and high schools, which requires staff training and secure storage locations, among other legal requirements.

Many other districts in California have recently begun to acknowledge the crisis, fighting to stock Narcan or inserting information about fentanyl into health lessons on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

Santa Clara County Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan began to worry about fentanyl even before the pandemic, with talk of “pill parties” and overdoses among local children.

“Losing any young person in the prime of their life is devastating,” he said, adding that he is pushing for more education and Narcan in schools.

“We can’t ignore middle school and high school,” he said. “Schools are a reflection of our communities. This is a long-term project for us.”

While it’s encouraging to see such efforts in some counties, it’s not happening everywhere, Didier said.

Before his son died, Didier had no idea that traffickers were operating on Snapchat or other social media sites. I had never heard of counterfeit pills made to look like Xanax or Percocet: the fake pills, sometimes laden with fentanyl, that are given out for $10 to $20 each in malls or left under a rock next to a mailbox, money is transferred from a phone.

“These are good kids doing normal things,” he said, adding that experimentation with an actual prescription drug is not uncommon, but rarely fatal. With fentanyl, it’s like playing Russian roulette.

Over time, he has honed his message to reach teens whose developing brains convince them they are invincible.

She tells them that the traffickers are trying to trick them, linking it to their fear of being tricked.

And he talks about the grieving father who took his son’s dog to his grave, an online video of the visit showing the pet desperately digging at the site.

“Your dog is not going to understand that you are no longer there,” he tells the students, having them visualize his own dog at his grave. “Our dog, his health hasn’t been the same since Zach died.”

In many districts, it is the students who have stepped forward to raise awareness, fearing it will be too late if they wait for their teachers and administrators to catch up with the crisis.

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