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APS parents plan march to show support for students and demand action on youth opioid epidemic

Police and firefighters on scene of a reported overdose at Wakefield High School (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 9:55 p.m. on 2/3/23) A coalition of parents will be marching on Friday at Wakefield High School to encourage students not to use drugs and to demand a countywide response to in-school opioid use.

The planned silent demonstration responds to an apparent drug overdose on school grounds discovered yesterday morning (Tuesday). An unconscious student was found in a boys bathroom and taken to the hospital in critical condition. Medics evaluated four additional kids at the school and students were released early so police could conduct an investigation.

Parents who plan on marching came up with the idea during a Spanish-language Zoom call hosted by Juntos en Justicia (Together in Justice in Spanish), a community advocacy group, last night after the news of the overdose spread.

“We’re going to walk to Wakefield with signs of encouragement and love for students,” said Juntos en Justicia founder Janeth Valenzuela. “We want to let them know they’re not alone.”

She said co-founder Elder Julio Basurto intend to meet with Superintendent Francisco Durán. Kenmore Community Families in Action, a school community-based organization which she helped found, intends to host a meeting open to all parents on Thursday, Feb. 23 at Kenmore Middle School.

“Every community has this issue,” said Valenzuela, who previously sounded the alarm about opioids in a report ARLnow published last fall.

Last night, parents floated a number of APS responses, including an immediate increase in school security.

“You can improve your security right now. You can check the bathrooms right now,” said Basurto. “We continue to have reports about distribution inside the school, and usage in hallways, bathrooms and classrooms. We still have reports of… people coming in and out of buildings without being checked.”

They heard from parents that drug deals involving dealers from within and outside Arlington are facilitated via social media and that some students are, allegedly, bullied into taking drugs.

Many meeting participants expressed a desire for the return of School Resource Officers, Basurto and Valenzuela said. The Arlington School Board removed them from school buildings to decrease racial disparities in interactions with police inside school buildings.

Should SROs be reinstated — a process that the Arlington County Police Department have previously said could take years due to staffing shortages — Valenzuela said some feel the dynamic could be different because of recent policing reforms. Anecdotally, she said newer recruits “don’t treat us with disregard” during stops or when responding to 911 calls.

“Parents think that the respect for the uniform will alleviate the problems,” she said.

Parents asked about supervised after-school programming and suggested that the Arlington County Dept. of Parks and Recreation update existing programs to be more relevant to younger generations and do fresh promotion.

Some parents want more effective disciplinary action for students caught dealing drugs while others want the zoning code to prohibit vape shops from opening near schools.

Basurto says APS needs to evaluate the efficacy of existing drug abuse curricula in schools.

“Just because we have presentations doesn’t mean we’re having success,” he said.

Last year, APS published a newsletter summarizing the work by its six substance abuse counselors, staff and teachers and Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative to combat the opioid crisis. These are some of the efforts to date:

  • Substance use counselors have trained more than 100 school staff on how to reverse an opioid overdose using naloxone, known by the brand name “Narcan”
  • AARI provided some 65 boxes of Narcan throughout school buildings
  • Counselors and AARI are developing resource folders and medication deactivation bags for families and have  provided community education at PTA meetings, school events and online
  • Counselors added a K-12 over-the-counter medication safety curriculum this year and provide regular education on avoiding use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in the middle and high schools, as well as lessons for fourth and fifth-grade students

Last night, more than 100 parents tried to log into the Zoom meeting and Valenzuela constantly let in new people as others logged off. The demand for information and action underscores the longstanding concern among parents, Basurto says.

“We’ve been telling the schools for over a year now about the situation in Arlington Public Schools, we’ve shared concerns specifically about Wakefield,” he said. “This is a serious problem and we need to take immediate action on these issues.”

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