As fentanyl overdoses continue to plague the US and deaths in schools in Alabama, at least one school system wants to make sure parents are extra careful about what their kids are doing.
The Baldwin County School System, Alabama’s third-largest public school system with about 31,000 students, sent out a message to parents Monday that any illegal substance inhaled in a vape could be deadly.
The press conference, held at a mental health clinic in Fairhope, did not address a specific case in the school system. Rather, it was structured as a public notice warning parents of the increasing threat of deadly synthetic drugs circulating in the United States
It also comes at a time when Narcan, a brand-name drug that can quickly reverse an opioid overdose, is available in almost every high school in Alabama, and even elementary schools.
“I think today’s message is similar to what happened in the past, when school communities parked a wrecked car along the freeway during the holiday season to alert people that drunk driving is dangerous,” said Eddie Tyler, Baldwin County School Principal . “This isn’t about a drug problem in Baldwin County schools. We’ve had very few expulsions for drugs. But it’s a wake-up call to our communities in Baldwin County what’s happening with this deadly trend.”
The press conference also sounded the alarm about the rise in teenage vaping, which has exploded in usage over the past decade, with one in 10 high school students using some form of vape, according to the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey. 66% of consumers aged 15-21 were unaware that some companies put nicotine in their products.
Students were also often unaware that drugs were being laced into vaping products, according to Baldwin school officials.
“We’ve been finding that a lot lately … these kids don’t know what’s inside,” said Marty McRae, assistant superintendent for safety and security.
Ashley Simon, a clinical director at The Bridge, Inc. — a drug and rehabilitation center for adolescents with a presence in 30 counties in Alabama — said drugs that students vape contain dangerous levels of fentanyl and that adolescents often become aware of the dangers are unaware enter on inhalation.
The dangers are overwhelming. Illegal fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and many times more potent than heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even a tiny amount of fentanyl can be fatal to the user and those who come into contact with it, causing alarm among educators and law enforcement officials.
The US Drug Enforcement Agency has launched a public awareness campaign aptly named “One Pill Can Kill.”
“You can’t see it or test it,” Simon said, noting that 71% of overdose deaths in Baldwin County were linked to fentanyl use. “This new generation of drugs comes in electronic devices. We hear about children being killed. Dear parents, please talk to your children. Parents are the number one reason kids don’t use drugs or alcohol.”
In fact, the general trend toward fentanyl overdose is worrying. The number of overdose cases for fentanyl and other synthetic opioids rose to over 100,000 people for the first time in 2021, and even higher deaths are expected by the end of 2022. In Jefferson County alone, health officials reported a 118% increase in fentanyl-related deaths from 2019 to 2022.
Fentanyl-related overdoses are also rocking schools in Alabama. At Selman High School, a student was killed earlier this month and four others were taken to a hospital on suspicion of fentanyl exposure. In Chickasaw, a suspected fentanyl overdose last month prompted school officials and local police to gently lockdown the town’s high school.
Baldwin County officials have not faced similar situations, although school system officials are increasing their efforts and spending to deal with them.
One strategy involves purchasing vape warning monitors that detect where a student is vaping and what type of products are being used. Monitors were purchased and installed at Fairhope’s 9th grade academy last year, warning officials about the use of e-cigarettes in the schools.
“It worked well,” he said. “It was more like ‘yes, (the monitor) was there’, but the kids got smarter. You know what the device is that’s fine. It’s a deterrent.”
Fairhope High School principal Jon Cardwell said the monitors are “a good tool for discovery” although the goal isn’t to “catch” them.
“Every deterrent we have is worth the money we spent on it,” Cardwell said. “Once word gets around, it doesn’t happen anymore. We want to stop (vape use in schools).”
McRae said school officials will evaluate the success of the monitors in Fairhope before deciding whether the Baldwin County School Board should expand them district-wide. The district school system includes the entire district with the exception of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, which operate their own city school districts.
The monitors, McRae said, cost $2,500 a unit.
Tyler said the school system is committed to buying equipment that “saves lives.”
“If we have to spend local funds, we will,” he said.
Additionally, in 2019, the school system bought Narcan, a brand name for naloxone — the drug that reverses an opioid overdose — and placed it in county schools. Last month, Narcan was accepted into elementary schools.
Ashley Barnhill, health care coordinator for the Baldwin County school system, said that “at this point in time” the school system did not need to use Narcan.
Michael Sibley, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Education, said the state offers training on how to use Narcan and the agency encourages all schools to stock it.
“Narcan is or will be available to every high school and is currently stocked in most high schools across the state,” Sibley said. “Narcan is used as needed for any unresponsive student – whether or not opioid use is present. There are no ill effects to using Narcan when not using the drug, but it can save a life when it is. We strongly encourage school systems to have Narcan available in case of an emergency.”
Tyler said he didn’t know what other school systems in Alabama were doing to voice his concerns about synthetic opioids and rising overdoses nationwide. He said “the growing fentanyl, THC, and vaping issue” is frustrating school boards across the state.
Sibley said the school participates in Red Ribbon Week and universal prevention campaigns statewide “aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of drugs, promoting positive health behaviors and changing attitudes about drug use.”
dr Karen Marlowe, director of the Center for Opioid Outreach at Auburn University, said that despite education efforts, 2.5 million teenagers have used some form of vape. She said the contributing factors were the marketing of the products and the misconception that vapes are relatively safe compared to other products like tobacco and alcohol.
“Our schools and civic organizations must continue to educate about the risks of vaping and drug use,” Marlowe said. “A multi-pronged approach to education should involve students, parents, community members and educators to make a real impact.”
She added: “As we know, the problems surrounding substance abuse are constantly evolving, as we are seeing with the advent of fentanyl, so there is a need for education to be ongoing and regular.”