Washington Officials Seek Help from Schools in Battling Opioid Epidemic

As the opioid crisis continues to ravage Washington and the rest of the nation, officials are considering new measures to address youth overdoses and addiction.

The Department of Health in Washington is providing naloxone or Narcan, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses, to every public high school in the state. Gov. Jay Inslee has urged the Legislature to pass a bill mandating opioid education in schools. Additionally, Senator Patty Kuderer from Bellevue has introduced a bill, as requested by students from Lake Washington High School, that would require all public school districts to keep naloxone in their high schools.

Washington has experienced a significant increase in opioid overdose deaths among young people, particularly due to the prevalence of fentanyl, a cheap and highly potent drug.

According to data from the state Department of Health, deaths related to opioid use among adolescents aged 14 to 18 have nearly tripled from 2016 to 2022, with fentanyl being a major contributor to this rise.

In 2022, at least 31 adolescents aged 10 to 17 and 157 individuals aged 18 to 24 died from opioid overdoses in Washington, according to data from the Department of Health.

These efforts in Washington are in line with a letter from the U.S. Department of Education and the White House drug policy office in October 2023. The letter urges schools to educate students about the opioid crisis and to ensure that naloxone is readily available on campus.

Research nationwide reveals that approximately 22 high school-aged adolescents died each week in 2022 due to overdoses, with fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills being a major factor. Experts explain that many teenagers are unaware of the high likelihood of pills being contaminated with fentanyl.

Education on opioids

At a committee hearing on Thursday, legislators heard emotional testimony from Maria Trujillo-Petty, who lost her 16-year-old son, Lucas Petty, to fentanyl poisoning in 2022. Trujillo-Petty emphasized the importance of opioid education in high schools, stating that teenagers often feel invincible and it is the responsibility of parents and educators to provide them with proper education and support during this devastating epidemic.

The opioid education bill, Senate Bill 5923, would require schools to provide opioid and fentanyl-use prevention education at least once a year to all students in seventh and ninth grade. The bill also mandates that substance-use prevention be included in the health and physical education learning standards for middle and high schools starting from the 2024-2025 school year. Testimony in support of the bill was provided by representatives from the Office of the Governor, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, educator groups, and students from Oak Harbor High School. The Washington Association for Substance Misuse and Violence Prevention raised concerns and requested the involvement of local community providers in the proposed opioid education curriculum.

Although more districts are making efforts to educate students about fentanyl, Senate Bill 5923 would be the first requirement for opioid education in Washington’s schools.

Naloxone in schools

A 2019 law mandates that school districts with 2,000 or more students have at least one naloxone kit in each high school. However, students from Lake Washington High School testified in support of Senate Bill 5804, which would require naloxone in high schools of all sizes. They argued that more than half of the state’s districts have less than 2,000 students, which means tens of thousands of students may not have access to naloxone. They also mentioned the names of high school students who lost their lives to an overdose. First responders and police officers joined the list of supporters for the bill, which includes the naloxone requirement for schools. No opposition to the legislation was presented during the hearing.

In the 2022-2023 school year, schools reported at least 42 instances of naloxone being used.

Naloxone has increasingly been recognized as a life-saving harm reduction strategy. In August, the Food and Drug Administration approved naloxone for over-the-counter use, making it available in drugstores for approximately $50 for two doses.

In April, the state Health Care Authority launched a campaign called Friends for Life to raise awareness about rising overdose rates among young people. The campaign aims to encourage young adults and teens to carry naloxone and provides training on how to use it.

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