Hundreds of parents, students and school staff filled the cafeteria of Clarksburg High School in Montgomery County on Saturday morning to learn about the spiraling fentanyl crisis and receive training on how to administer a lifesaving treatment that can reverse the effect of an opioid overdose.
“This is a call to action,” said Patricia Kapunan, medical officer for Montgomery County Public Schools.
The number of youth drug overdoses has spiked, she said, even as overdose incidents in the county overall have fallen. The reason: fentanyl, a deadly compound 50 times as powerful as heroin and 100 times as powerful as morphine. It is increasingly present in other drugs.
“The availability of this powerful illicit drug is what is driving these incidents,” she said.
Youth overdoses, which include victims under the age of 21, rose by 77 percent in Montgomery County last year. The county tallied 48 youth overdoses last year, including 11 that were fatal, according to Montgomery County Police Department data.
Attendees on Saturday ranged from those who didn’t know much about the crisis and wanted to learn more, to at least one parent who said her son is actively using fentanyl and wanted information about how to help him.
Theresa Kliever said she was at a loss for how to help her 15-year-old son. She had watched him break down in tears in her bathroom, saying he wanted to change, but she has also chased him down at a motel, where he was buying or using drugs.
“I literally banged on the Motel 6 room,” she said.
“He’s out all day long doing I don’t know what,” she said. Her efforts to get him help have so far not worked, she said.
Kliever, 48, left the forum still unsure of how to help her son but with one safeguard in her bag: a two-pack of Narcan, a nasal spray that blocks the effects of opioids and helps restore breathing. The forum ended with a training on how to administer the treatment, which involves pushing the spray into either nostril, waiting for it to take effect and, if necessary, administering a second dose. Attendees lined up for the Narcan packs.
Kliever said she was happy to have the Narcan, known generically as naloxone, “just in case.” Whether she’ll need to use it some day: “I hope not,” she said. “I hope not.”
Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Among children, fatal drug overdoses had been steady for about a decade at around 500 per year. Then, in just two years, they more than doubled, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the rise was due to fentanyl, which was identified in 84 percent of adolescent overdose deaths from 2019 to 2021.
Users often start by taking a quarter of a pill of the powerful opioid; as their body adjusts to the drug, they might increase to four or five pills a day, said Sivabalaji Kaliamurthy, a child and adolescent addiction psychiatrist at Children’s National Hospital. He added that addiction happens faster with fentanyl than with heroin.
Schools in Montgomery County and the District have Narcan on hand to administer in cases of overdose, and families should too, Kaliamurthy said.
“To me it’s like having a fire extinguisher at home — you hope to never need it, but if you do, you’re glad that you have it,” he said.
The District’s Department of Health distributes Narcan free at some locations, he said. In Montgomery County one can walk into a fire station and request it. In Virginia, he said, it is available at pharmacies.
Saturday’s event included a session in which officials from schools, police and community organizations answered questions. Most of the questions were posed by high school students, many of whom wanted to know what was being done to combat the problem and how to make sure the message about the dangers was getting to people who need to hear it.
One student asked what the county was doing about the supply of drugs to students, including the fact that students are sometimes getting them from one another.
Nicholas Picerno, director of the county police’s special investigations division, replied by making clear that students who report an overdose are not at risk of arrest, even if they are at the scene with illegal drugs.
“My detectives have no interest in arresting and prosecuting high school-age students, youth, for possessing a drug,” he said. “Our investigative resources are always going to be spent on source supply.”
Picerno also detailed some of the many hazards presented by fentanyl. Some are manufactured in rainbow colors to look like candy and appeal to young people, he said. “Youth are being targeted.”
He also warned that if 10 random pills were taken and analyzed in a lab, some may be found to not have any fentanyl at all, some would have “just enough to get you high,” and some would have so much drug that one single dose will kill.
“That’s what’s really scary about this problem,” he said.
Another teen asked the panel about a personal situation: “How can I help support my friend while her parent is going through this right now?” Panelists replied with resources including Al-Anon, a support group for relatives and friends of people with addiction.
“I just want to commend you for being a great friend,” added Henok Solomon, program director at the Landing, an adolescent recovery program at Sheppard Pratt.
Many of the parents at Saturday’s forum had no experience with the drug but wanted to learn more.
“As a parent, you’re going to be nervous,” said Sreeni Talasila, whose son is in middle school. “The fact that my kid might not even know he’s taking fentanyl” is terrifying. He recalled the officer’s description of the rainbow-colored pills. “Which kid can resist candy?”
He said that on a scale of one to 10, his nervousness was at about an eight.
Laura Francois attended the forum because she is concerned by the trends in the community. After learning more, she said she planned to broach the subject with her 15-year-old nephew.
“I will bring up drug use — very carefully,” she said. “Teenagers tend to shut down. They see us as old fogies. I have to be very careful how I approach that.”