According to a CDC report published in 2016, deaths from overdose of prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999. The time in which we could avoid talking about this with our youth and their schools has long since passed. Teens in North Carolina will have to make decisions about not only alcohol and smoking cigarettes but also whether to experiment with powerful prescription drugs. Think for a moment about where you store medicine in your home and imagine just how easy your child or one of their friends could get their hands on powerful drugs. Did anyone in your family have their wisdom teeth pulled or an ACL surgery in the past year? It may be easier for the young people in your life to access these drugs than you think.
According to a 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services among kids 12-17, non-medical prescription drug use is second only to marijuana use, with the most commonly abused drugs being painkillers (opioids). Kids facing pressure to try drugs or alcohol is a tale as old as time. What feels new is the ease of access to prescription medications, which may seem safer simply because they are prescribed by a doctor. Prescription opioids can be easily obtained from friends or family, maybe just by opening an unlocked medicine cabinet. While parents are responsible for limiting kids’ access to drugs at home, middle and high schools need to plan and prepare for the terrible chance of an overdose on school grounds.
Parents expect schools to be prepared to respond to any emergency situation. Teachers and students practice what to do in case of a fire, an earthquake, or an active shooter scenario. But how many schools are really ready to respond in case of an overdose on school grounds?
We need school officials to take bold action to make sure they are prepared for the worst-case scenario. We need a comprehensive, common-sense set of substance abuse policies that protect our children at school and give them the tools they need to make the right choices when they are out in the world.
School boards across the state need to enact policies to ensure schools are prepared. A model for this is Roanoke County, Virginia. High schools have at least 3 doses of the overdose reversal drug, naloxone (commonly known by the brand name Narcan). This highly effective drug can be administered in the form of a nasal spray.
Some resource officers in North Carolina schools already carry the drug, like Sgt. Grant Mayfield, the resource officer at Carrboro High School. He shared his story of witnessing multiple student overdoses with WRAL News. At the time of the report, June 2016, Mayfield had begun to carry an emergency kit with naloxone nasal spray. The topic has been under discussion for a couple of years, with groups like the Department of Public Instruction and the NC Department of Health and Human Services talking back and forth about who has the responsibility and the ability to put a mandate like this into effect.
Some will say that having this drug on hand will send the message that taking drugs at school is okay. Questions of personal responsibility and standards of conduct are undoubtedly important parts of an education. But asking schools to be unprepared to cope with a possible emergency is irresponsible and heartless. No young person should witness a friend or classmate die of an overdose. We have the power to make sure that never happens.
Of course, reversing an overdose is only a band-aid on a larger issue. We also need to overhaul the drug and alcohol abuse prevention education kids get in school. We need kids, parents, teachers, and community leaders talking about how this problem is affecting their communities and how we can solve them. Teenagers need practice and the skills to confront difficult decisions about risky behaviors. The consequences to taking powerful prescription painkillers recreationally are too great for kids to be finding out on their own, by trial and error. Educational programs must address the dangers and arm kids and teens with the information and skills they need to navigate these decisions.
Bernadette Aylward is a graduate student at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill.