With fentanyl continuing to drive a spike in teen overdoses in LA county, the response of school districts has been brought into the limelight when LA Unified School District (LAUSD) recently announced plans to supply doses of naloxone, a medication capable of reversing overdoses, to schools in coming weeks. 

However, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) has had naloxone in all secondary schools since October of 2018, according to a spokesperson for the district. 

LAUSD’s announcement comes amid a spate of overdoses among students in the district and the death of a 15-year old girl at Bernstein High School in Hollywood from a pill containing fentanyl, which she had believed to be Percocet. Three SMMUSD students were taken to the hospital in May of this year to be treated for overdoses after taking drugs reported to have been laced with fentanyl and a Santa Monica teen died in February 2021 from a fentanyl overdose after ingesting a pill he thought to be Xanax but actually contained fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid up to 50 times as potent as heroin and 80 to 100 times stronger than heroin, according to the CDC. This makes it attractive to illicit drug dealers and makers because it allows them to use smaller amounts while achieving the same effects, making it more profitable and leading to a surge in counterfeit versions of other drugs actually containing fentanyl –which can be deadly in quantities as small as a few grains of sand. 

In addition to stocking naloxone, SMMUSD said the district views education on the topic as key in combating the crisis and preventing student overdoses. 

“The health and safety of our students are our top priorities,” superintendent Ben Drati said. “We provide ongoing programming that educates the whole student, including mental health awareness and support, fitness programs, and wellbeing programs. Our administrators, health services teams, staff and partners are taking the rise in fentanyl poisoning very seriously and we will continue to provide our support year after year.” 

He said that the district partners with several organizations to provide students with resources and tools regarding drug use and addiction, including CLARE MATRIX, a substance use disorder treatment center in Santa Monica. 

Jolan Dawson Millard, the director of prevention services for CLARE MATRIX said the organization works with SMMUSD through a city grant to help provide services to students struggling with substance use disorders as well as those at risk of addiction. She said they also provide educational opportunities for parents on the issue. 

“It’s a pretty heavy topic right now because we are having quite a few students getting involved with some harsher substances,” she said. “So they [parents] want to learn what that looks like – ‘What does it look like if my child is using or withdrawing? What can I do? How do I even present this topic to my child?’ That’s one of the things we’ll be discussing at an upcoming parent and teacher meeting.”

She said that the organization meets regularly with school district administrators to identify primary concerns and tailor their programs to them. Recently, fentanyl has been at the top of the list. 

“We put together a workshop that we’re going to continue implementing this year specifically on fentanyl and opioid use with youth,” Millard said. 

She said she thinks it is important to talk about the issue and spread awareness of the danger it poses to students, of which they may not be fully aware. 

“I think one of the things that we’re still facing is a level of denial,” she said. “I think it’s also important to know how, unfortunately, how easy it is to obtain, because our youth are getting access to it at a younger and younger age. But I think the more they are educated on it, the more they are educated on their ability to easily access it and what it looks like in use, they can better prepare themselves.” 

grace@smdp.com