Slow-Moving DisasterIf administrators "think it's not in their schools, they're foolish," warns Conley. In Fekaris's own suburban high school, two student-athletes became addicted to opioids following sports injuries. "I always thought of myself as a rather 'with it' administrator as far as being in tune with kids," says Ember Conley, superintendent of Park City School District. Although the crisis was on her radar to some extent, she was unaware of how easy it is for students to access opioids like prescription painkillers and synthetics.
Last fall, two best friends attending Treasure Mountain Junior High died from taking U-47700 or "pink." The dangerous synthetic was purchased legally online from China. (The drug has since been classified as a Schedule I drug by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA]).
The boys' deaths, which happened less than two days apart, left the community reeling. In the immediate aftermath, district officials gave students and staff the space to grieve. They brought in substitutes to give teachers periodic breaks, opted for barbecues and bike rides instead of professional development, and provided counseling and other services.
District officials then turned their attention to ensuring this never happened again in their system. "We've been on fast forward ever since," says Conley.
The availability and overprescription of opioids have seemingly accelerated the epidemic. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, according to a preliminary report from the New York Times. In 2016, 62,000 people died from overdoses—a 19 percent increase from the year before.
Since 1999, the number of teens dying from drug overdoses has more than doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite the alarming data, Nina Fekaris, president of the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), says there's a misconception in some more affluent communities that "this will never happen here." But in Oregon's Beaverton School District, where she has served as a nurse for 27 years, she has seen students get hooked not on drugs they got off the streets but on those prescribed by a trusted doctor. Yet the damaging effects of addiction, she's noticed, are just the same.
This "crosses all boundaries—race, gender, socioeconomic status, rural, urban, suburban," adds William Kerr, superintendent of Norwin School District. "It is a national crisis affecting every corner of every state. There's no family, school, or community immune from the opioid and heroin epidemic."
Some counties and states are suing pharmaceutical companies to get help shouldering the burden. Lawsuits are popping up nationwide accusing the companies of intentionally concealing the addictive nature of opioids.
According to a study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than one in three Americans were prescribed opioids in 2015. "Access alone provides a massive risk, especially to our students who don't understand the consequences," says Conley. "Kids are impulsive. That one time could make a difference."