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Rising overdoses on school grounds prompt APS, School Board to act

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

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From 2019 until 2022, there were no reported juvenile overdoses on Arlington Public Schools grounds. In the first six weeks of 2023, there have been three, including one that was fatal.

Meanwhile, drug possession and distribution cases remain lower than they were before school buildings closed during the pandemic, but appear to be on the rise.

The Arlington County Police Department, which provided the data in response to a FOIA request by ARLnow, says factors that could have impacted the number of reported cases possession and distribution cases include Covid-related school closures and legislative changes.

State statute was modified so that school principals were only required to report to law enforcement possible felony drug possession cases, such as possession of oxycodone or Adderall without a prescription.

Narcotics cases involving juveniles at Arlington Public Schools properties from 2019-2023 (courtesy of ACPD)

The data seems to suggest drug use on school grounds is rising, as is the possession of substances that carry felony charges. These emerging trends were thrown into relief last week when a student was found unconscious at Wakefield High School, and later died at the hospital of an apparent drug overdose. Four other students that day were evaluated and dispatches for possible overdoses continued into the next week.

While parents have been concerned about opioids since kids returned to school following the pandemic closures, the events of last week prompted a parent march and a School Board work session on opioids. During the School Board meeting — complete with a demonstration of the overdose reversal drug naloxone — substance abuse counselor Jenny Sexton said her team is most concerned about young people crushing up and smoking illicitly manufactured opioids.

These pills are cheap and can be purchased on social media. Some contain fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times more potent than morphine and can only be detected once the pill is taken or if the user has a fentanyl test strip.

School Board members asked administrators what additional steps they are taking to improve school security and increase drug use prevention efforts and substance use recovery support. They also assured those watching they are taking this issue seriously.

“I hope that you hear that we are moving on this, that we feel the sense of urgency and that everyone around this table, and that everyone who is at APS, we see the issue, we feel the fear along with you,” School Board Vice-Chair Cristina Diaz-Torres said, addressing the parents tuning in.

“We understand that that is not acceptable and that there should not be a version of the world where you have to live in fear of your child going to school,” she continued. “We are moving quickly on a lot preventative measures with immediate triage efforts to ensure that our students have what they need in the immediate future.”

(The work session recorded more than 750 listeners — far and away more than any other recent work session and on par with many regularly-scheduled School Board meetings.)

School Board Chair Reid Goldstein stressed that combating drug use will require a community-wide response consisting of efforts at home and school and from the public.

“As a community, we must stay vigilant and well-informed and work together,” he said. “We have urged [the superintendent] to pursue every avenue to address safety and security issues at the schools by providing proposals to the board for funding consideration. It is through the collaborative actions of staff, parents, the community and students that APS will holistically address the needs of students, families and staff.”

In a statement to ARLnow, Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said the County Board agrees with the need for a community-wide response and interventions at home, school and in the county’s neighborhoods.

“We are currently coordinating with our colleagues to see what additional resources and increased support Arlington County can provide to reduce addiction in our community, with a particular focus on youth and a goal that no other family has to experience the tragedy of losing a child to the consequences of substance use,” he said.

One focal point at last Tuesday night’s School Board work session was the need for more substance abuse counselors as well as more specialization for existing counselors. Six counselors currently oversee substance use education for all of APS and work with individual at-risk students. One counselor reported a caseload of 25 middle-schoolers.

“I think even that caseload sounds like a lot for an individual — to have 25 kids you’re trying to keep track of — but when I do the math, for six counselors, that’s not enough,” Diaz-Torres said. “I know that we’ve talked about this would be a significant addition to the budget, but 125 students, roughly, that’s not enough touchpoints.”

School Board member Mary Kadera suggested making it easier to send counselors to specific school communities for “triage” and, at the high school level, redefining their roles, since counselors are responsible for academic scheduling, college and career planning and social-emotional work for cohorts of 9th and 11th graders or 10th and 12th graders.

Some said there is room for increased support on the part of the county’s Dept. of Human Services, especially to work with children with drug addictions.

“We need to continue to have the conversation here in Arlington County to say, what else can we do to make sure we have providers at the county and DHS level to pick up cases that won’t be well-served in an educational setting?” said Darrell Sampson, APS Executive Director of Student Services.

There is a need for more children’s behavioral health clinicians. When asked how many the county should have on payroll and how many there are today, a DHS spokesman did not provide exact numbers, but did allude to a shortage.

“With the workforce shortage we are challenged hiring for our CBH unit,” he said. “We have several long-standing vacancies and are working regularly on recruitment strategies.”

Open positions at DHS include a bilingual peer recovery specialist and family support partner, a licensed behavioral health emergency services clinician and a bilingual children’s behavioral health therapist.

The School Board and staff discussed an agreement with DHS to bring counselors into the schools. If DHS ran its own substance use day treatment program, APS could support the education of students in that program.

“I think there are lots of opportunities in that area,” Sampson said. “We’re looking at using therapeutic day treatment, having qualified mental health providers come into our schools and work specifically with students who are eligible for Medicaid funding to address behavioral needs they may have.”

What changes are being made in the schools? 

This week, every staff member in grades 6-12 who wasn’t already trained in administering naloxone, known by its brand name Narcan, received training, APS spokesman Frank Bellavia confirmed to ARLnow.

APS is “working actively” to get emergency containers of naloxone throughout its schools. APS gets the medicine for free from the county and the Virginia Dept. of Health. VDH fulfills orders on a first-come, first-serve basis and there are no supply constraints at this time, a department spokeswoman tells ARLnow.

School Board member David Priddy expressed interest in seeing students carry fentanyl test strips.

“We need to make sure we’re within the legal guidelines around the carrying of medications for students within schools,” Sampson said. “It is something that we’re very interested in… We will be updating the community as we get that information.”

Meanwhile, Chief of Staff John Mayo said the safety and security team is canvassing school buildings with principals to see where cameras are positioned and if they need to be moved, plus whether more cameras are needed. During the meeting, the concern was raised that some students know how to avoid being seen on camera.

Security staff are also exploring how to expand supervision, including in bathrooms, hallways and at entry and exit points. Building administrators will be reviewing their safety plans this month.

The school system is stepping up the level of communication with parents where possible. In a School Talk message yesterday (Wednesday), Supt. Francisco Durán said that he has reflected on communication following recent incidents — such as a written, racist threat of gun violence at Key Elementary School — and committed to “making changes moving forward.”

“Moving forward, all messages regarding school safety will include the nature of the threat in as much detail as we are able [to provide],” he said. “In evaluating some of the recent communications, there were instances that did not include this information, so we need to ensure this happens consistently.”

In a medical emergency, such as an overdose, APS will notify families that there is an ambulance but cannot share any more information “as part of our legal obligation to maintain student’s private medical information.”

There will also be student-oriented social media campaigns and public-service announcements, lessons for fourth-graders, more small group counseling and additional student and family programming at secondary schools.

What you can do

There are two upcoming classes this month focused on recognizing the signs of opioid use, addiction and overdose and how to respond to using Narcan. Additional information can be found on the county’s website.

The county also has fentanyl test strips available.

School Board member Mary Kadera offered three tips for parents.

First, she said to look in medicine cabinets for old prescription opiates and taking them to the four, year-round drug take-back boxes throughout Arlington.

Second, she suggested sitting down with their kids and going through their social media accounts together. Her third recommendation was for parents to confirm with other parents when their kids have plans to hang out.

“These are not conversations our kids love, but as parents I think they’re hard conversations we need to have,” she said.

“In my life, as a parent, and as someone who used to be a teacher, I have never seen anything, drug-wise, that concerns me quite like this,” she continued. “We used to talk about drugs that were addictive, and now we are talking about substances where two or three grains of it can be fatal.”

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