Sunday, April 14, 2024

How the loss of a friend led a group of Colorado teens to become advocates against drug overdoses

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Gavinn McKinney really liked Nike shoes, fireworks, and sushi. He was learning Potawatomi, a language from his Native American roots. He enjoyed holding his niece and smelling her baby scent. On his 15th birthday in Durango, Colorado, he spent a cold December day chopping wood for neighbors who needed help keeping warm.

Sadly, he didn’t make it to his 16th birthday. In December 2021, Gavinn passed away from fentanyl poisoning at a friend’s place. His friends mentioned it was his first time trying strong drugs. So many people attended his memorial service that some had to stand outside the funeral home.

Now, his friends want to honor Gavinn by making a law. They spoke to state lawmakers about a bill they helped create. This bill ensures students can carry naloxone without getting in trouble. Usually, schools have strict rules about medicines. In Colorado, students can’t even have emergency meds like an inhaler without special permission. They’re also not allowed to share them.

“We figured we could really make a difference if we put our hearts into it,” said Niko Peterson, a senior at Animas High School in Durango, who was one of McKinney’s friends working on the bill. “Being proactive instead of reactive is the best solution.”

In some places like California and Maryland, high school students can carry naloxone with permission. But Jon Woodruff, from a Washington, D.C.-based organization, hasn’t heard of a statewide law like the one Colorado is thinking about. His group studies and makes laws about substance use.

Last year, the Biden administration supported an ad campaign telling young people to have emergency medication.

In many states, laws about naloxone let people, even young ones, help without getting in trouble if they accidentally hurt someone while using naloxone. But if schools don’t have rules saying it’s okay, students bringing naloxone to class can be unclear.

In September 2022, Ryan Christoff, who works at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, Colorado, where one of his daughters goes, said that the school staff took naloxone from one student. Christoff had given that student the Narcan, which is a brand of naloxone, after his daughter almost died from fentanyl poisoning. He thinks every student should carry it.

A spokesperson from Boulder Valley School District, Randy Barber, said the incident was rare, and they’ve worked on making sure nurses know about it. Now, the district tells everyone to think about carrying naloxone.

In Durango, McKinney’s passing really affected the community. His close ones insisted he wasn’t into heavy drugs. Surprisingly, he was hooked on Tapatío hot sauce – he’d carry some to Rockies games.

After McKinney’s death, people began getting tattoos of his famous saying from his favorite sweatshirt: “Love is the cure.” Even a few teachers joined in. But it was his classmates and friends from another high school who turned this loss into a political movement.

Lots of teenagers who pass away are usually just trying things out rather than having a serious problem with using drugs for a long time. This comes from Joseph Friedman, a researcher at UCLA who looks at substance use. He thinks it’s important for schools to teach kids about fake pills and drugs, like Stanford does with its Safety First program.

Friedman thinks schools can do the least by letting students have a drug called Narcan that can save lives. He says it’s better if schools find teens who are more likely to have problems and give them Narcan, explaining why it’s important.

Friedman shared this in The New England Journal of Medicine and pointed out that Colorado has a lot of teenagers dying from drug overdose, more than twice the national rate from 2020 to 2022.

More and more, fentanyl is being sold as pills, especially in the West. This contributes a lot to the problem of teens overdosing, according to Friedman. If the bill gets approved by Colorado lawmakers, it’s a crucial step, says Ju Nyeong Park from Brown University. They lead a group researching how to stop overdoses. Park hopes other states will do the same.

Park thinks it’s essential to have programs that check drugs for harmful stuff, better access to treatment for teens with drug problems, and promoting tools to reduce harm. One example is a national hotline called Never Use Alone, where anyone can call anonymously for remote supervision in emergencies.

Some Colorado schools are teaching their staff to use naloxone and keeping it at school through a state program. But students feel it’s not enough, especially in rural areas. They think teachers with naloxone won’t be at parties where students might use drugs. Keeping it at home isn’t practical either.

Zoe Ramsey, a senior at Animas High School, thinks naloxone should be in students’ backpacks all the time. But there’s confusion. Students and school staff worry: Can students get in trouble for carrying it, or sharing it with friends? Could the school be responsible if something bad happens?

Ilias “Leo” Stritikus, who finished high school last year at Durango High School, shared that they were told it’s not allowed to have naloxone or share it. Leo, along with Ramsey and Peterson, started a group called Students Against Overdose. They convinced Animas, a charter school, and the nearby school district to change the rules. Now, if parents agree, and after learning how to use it, students can have naloxone at school.

Karla Sluis, the spokesperson for Durango School District 9-R, mentioned that at least 45 students have finished the training. In different parts of the country, schools are also making it clear that students can have naloxone.

Smita Malhotra, chief medical director for Los Angeles Unified School District in California, said, “We want to help save lives.” In Los Angeles County, many teens died from overdoses. Since then, the district updated its naloxone policy to let students carry and use it without getting in trouble. They’re also supporting students through peers and educating families.

Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland did something similar. They had to use naloxone 18 times in a year, and five students died in about one semester. When they talked about it with the community, Patricia Kapunan, the district’s medical officer, mentioned, “Students really wanted naloxone access. Students won’t carry something they think might cause trouble.”

So, they made their rules clear too. While that was happening, local news shared a story about high school kids discovering a fellow teen unconscious, with purple lips, in a McDonald’s bathroom near their school. They used Narcan to help them wake up. This all went down during lunch on a regular school day.

One person named Kapunan said, “We can’t just rely on Narcan to solve the opioid problem, but it was important to start with that. It’s like knowing 911.”

Now, with support from the school and health department, students are teaching other students how to use naloxone. Jackson Taylor, who helps with the training, thinks they taught around 200 students in three hours on a recent Saturday.

“It felt really good, like taking a step to fix the problem,” Taylor said.

Everyone who learned got two doses of naloxone to take with them.

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