Washington Officials Turn to Schools in Fight Against Opioid Epidemic

Making the overdose reversal medication naloxone more widely available and providing more education on the dangers of fentanyl are being considered.

This is a photo of a person walking past posters from the Health Care Authority’s “Friends for Life” campaign
Posters from the Health Care Authority’s “Friends for Life” campaign, which encourages young people to carry naloxone and educate themselves about fentanyl. (Friends for Life)

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As the opioid epidemic continues to ravage Washington and the rest of the country, officials are considering new policies to curb youth overdoses and addiction.

Washington’s Department of Health is offering opioid overdose reversal medication, known as naloxone or Narcan, to every public high school in the state. Gov. Jay Inslee has asked  the Legislature to pass a bill requiring education on opioids in schools. And at the request of Lake Washington High School students, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, has introduced a bill to require all public school districts to keep naloxone in high schools.

Washington has seen a dramatic increase in opioid overdose deaths among young people, particularly due to fentanyl, a cheap and devastating drug.

According to the state Department of Health, rates of opioid-related fatalities among adolescents ages 14 to 18 surged almost threefold from 2016 to 2022. The agency says the increase can largely be attributed to fentanyl.

In 2022, at least 31 adolescents ages 10 to 17 and 157 people ages 18 to 24 died from an opioid overdose in Washington, according to Department of Health data. 

The state’s efforts are in line with an October 2023 letter from the U.S. Department of Education and the White House drug policy office that encouraged schools to educate students about the opioid epidemic and to keep naloxone on hand.

Nationwide, research finds that about 22 high school-aged adolescents died each week from overdoses in 2022, driven by fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills. Researchers say teens are often unaware of how likely it is for pills to be laced with fentanyl.

Education on opioids

During a Thursday committee hearing, legislators heard emotional testimony in support of opioid education in schools from Maria Trujillo-Petty, who lost her 16-year-old son, Lucas Petty, to fentanyl poisoning in 2022.

“High school is the age that kids feel invincible,” said Trujillo-Petty, a mother of four. “It’s our job as parents and as educators to ensure that our youth is being properly educated and supported through this devastating epidemic.”

The opioid education bill, Senate Bill 5923, requires schools to give opioid and fentanyl-use prevention education at least once a year to all students in seventh and ninth grade. Under the bill, state education officials must also include substance-use prevention in health and physical education learning standards for middle and high schools in time for the 2024-2025 school year.

Representatives from the Office of the Governor, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, educator groups and students at Oak Harbor High School were among those who testified in support.

Only one group, the Washington Association for Substance Misuse and Violence Prevention, raised concerns, asking legislators to involve local community providers in the bill’s proposed opioid education curriculum.

While more districts are trying to warn students about fentanyl, it appears SB 5923 would impose the first requirement for education about the drug in Washington’s schools.

Naloxone in schools

A 2019 law requires school districts with 2,000 or more students to have at least one naloxone kit in each high school. But Lake Washington students who testified on Thursday said Senate Bill 5804, which would require naloxone in high schools of all sizes, is necessary.

Theodore Meek, a student at Lake Washington High School, said more than half of the state’s districts have less than 2,000 students and encompass tens of thousands of Washington’s students. And Sophia Lymberis, a senior at Lake Washington High School, named individual high schoolers who have lost their lives to an overdose.

“Whenever a student has an overdose, more than just one person is impacted. Students, parents, teachers and administration all experience the collective trauma that comes with witnessing an overdose,” Lymberis said.

“As a state, it is inexcusable that we have the resources to give children another chance at life, but do not yet have the legislation to ensure that our students — my classmates — are protected,” she added.

First responders and police officers also added their names to a list of supporters backing the bill with the naloxone requirement for schools. No one testified against the legislation.

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

Carrying naloxone has increasingly been touted by experts and advocates as a life-saving harm reduction strategy. In August, the Food and Drug Administration approved naloxone for over-the-counter use, and it’s now available in drugstores for as low as about $50 for two doses.

In April, the state Health Care Authority launched a campaign called Friends for Life encouraging young adults and teens to carry naloxone and training them on how to use it.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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