The Washington Post

Parents seek solutions as youth overdoses rise

Forum in Arlington focuses on fentanyl and its antidote, Narcan


Youth overdoses are on the rise, particular­ly those involving fentanyl, and parents and school leaders in the region are seeking solutions on how to address the crisis.

“What do we need to do to take our community back?” Judith Davis, president of the Wakefield High School PTSA, said to a full auditorium Monday evening at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington County.

The meeting, hosted by Arlington County’s PTAS, came amid rising concerns in schools about overdoses, as deaths connected to fentanyl-tinged drugs increase throughout the country. Similar meetings are taking place around the region as parents and school leaders look to invest in resources for students and find solutions.

Not far from Arlington on Monday night, Fairfax County Public Schools Superinten­dent Michelle Reid and county Police Chief Kevin Davis held a community meeting on the dangers of opioids, and fentanyl in particular, at Fairfax High School.

Fentanyl, a deadly compound 50 times as powerful as heroin and 100 times as powerful as morphine, has been driving a spike in the number of youth drug overdoses in recent years. Among American children, fatal drug overdoses had been steady for about a decade, at about 500 per year. Then, in just two years, they more than doubled, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fentanyl was identified in 84 percent of adolescent overdose deaths from 2019 to 2021 and is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to a Washington Post analysis.

In Arlington, county police Deputy Chief Wayne Vincent said, there were no juvenile overdoses reported in 2019. That figure increased to one nonfatal overdose in 2020 and jumped to eight in 2022. Vincent said that so far this year, seven juvenile overdoses have been reported in Arlington County.

“I talk to my kid about this stuff every day. This stuff that’s happened with the schools, and the OD that happened at Wakefield, it has lit a fire in me, and I can’t stop talking about it,” one parent said at the Arlington meeting, referring to an incident this year when a student was found unconsciou­s in a bathroom at Wakefield High School. That student was taken to a hospital and later died.

The Arlington forum featured a panel of speakers, including psychiatri­sts, social workers, substance abuse treatment experts and law enforcemen­t officers, who discussed the signs of when students need help and ways to better reach the county’s youths.

Many of the questions from those in attendance and more than 100 people watching a live stream of the event centered on the accessibil­ity and effectiven­ess of Narcan, a nasal spray known genericall­y as naloxone that blocks the effects of opioids and helps restore breathing.

“If we’re teaching our kids how to put condoms on bananas, we can teach them how to put Narcan up somebody’s nose,” said Sulman Mirza, a child psychiatri­st at the Inova Kellar Center. “We should have Narcan on every corner. It should be part of first-aid kits. It should be everywhere.”

Narcan is available at all Arlington high schools, but students are not allowed to carry it because it’s technicall­y a prescripti­on drug, organizers said Monday. Frank Bellavia, a spokesman for Arlington Public Schools, said school officials are looking into allowing students to bring Narcan to

“What do we need to do to take our community back?” Judith Davis, president of the Wakefield High School PTSA

school, but the change would have to be made legislativ­ely or through regulation from the Food and Drug Administra­tion. Panelists did not discuss the idea Monday.

One parent asked what law enforcemen­t was doing about the supply of drugs to students.

Vincent said the county has zero tolerance for people dealing drugs to youths and urged anyone with informatio­n to report it. “We can’t do this alone,” he said. Speakers and questions from parents also focused on the worsening mental health crisis fueled by the pandemic. Rhonda Stewart Jones, a licensed clinical social worker with About Face Consulting, pointed to the importance of engaging with children and making sure they look for the deeper roots of a problem.

“What we’re looking at are the behaviors, and sometimes we just don’t have time to sit and identify, ‘Why is this child behaving in this way?’” Stewart said.

Harper Woolcock, 17, a senior at Washington Liberty High School, summed up the issue.

“We are not okay,” Harper said. “And that’s sort of a joke that we make at school, but it’s really not.”

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