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APS must change protocols for students on drugs to prevent another fatal overdose, some teachers say

Parents and community members march in front of Wakefield High School (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

After a fatal overdose on school grounds last month, Arlington Public Schools has been urging staff to call 911 for potential overdoses.

For incidents that might not be life-or-death, however, staff members are still being instructed to tell administrators when students show signs of being high or drunk, sending them to the school nurse for evaluation.

But multiple school sources tell ARLnow that, in their experience, they’ve already been reporting possibly impaired kids to administration and getting them evaluated by nurses, and neither step made inroads for students who are repeatedly coming to school high.

They added that they don’t feel heard by administrators. Students who are evaluated are either sent home or — in at least one case — returned to class while obviously high, per a video inside a classroom that ARLnow reviewed.

The instructions to staff were not enough to address their long-standing concerns about a group of teens at Wakefield that included Sergio Flores, the student who died last month, according to some teachers and local teachers union president June Prakash.

Before Flores was found unconscious in a bathroom at the school last month, staff had intervened when they discovered him and other students doing drugs — and had told administrators they were doing drugs and skipping class, according to a teacher with knowledge of the situation and documentation shared with ARLnow.

Despite following protocol, the teachers say the behavior continued.

“It’s going to happen again and again if this is all Arlington Public Schools is going to do,” the teacher told ARLnow, on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution. “I don’t want to see this story or our students buried again.”

“As educators, we are in loco parentis” — acting in the place of the parent, in Latin — “but where does that begin and end?” Prakash asked.

It’s a question rattling teachers, says parent Judith Davis.

“Teachers are not okay, at all,” she tells ARLnow.

One Wakefield teacher is now even taking it upon herself to raise money to support families who cannot afford residential drug treatment for their children, which can cost some $60,000 for 90 days. Nearly $2,400 has been raised so far.

“I believe some students’ only chance to recover from opioid addiction is to remove them from the school environment and place them in a residential program,” the teacher wrote in the GoFundMe description. “Help me raise funds so that a student’s ability to pay is never an issue when finding a placement.”

Opioid use appears to be on the rise among youth and in Arlington Public Schools, and this issue is more widespread than just Wakefield.

In 2019, there were no recorded opioid overdoses involving juveniles in Arlington. Last year, that number jumped to eight, none of which were fatal. This year alone, there have been four, three of which occurred at school, and one of which was fatal, per remarks Tuesday by County Board Chair Christian Dorsey.

Sources say the writing has been on the wall for months and perhaps since the end of widespread virtual instruction during the pandemic. They said teachers do not feel heard by administrators when they report their concerns or refer students for evaluations. Such concerns extend to lower grades, including at local elementary and middle schools.

“This does seem like a no-win situation in a lot of ways,” Prakash said. “On the one hand, you report something, and it seems to go unnoticed, or it looks like nothing is happening.”

“On the other hand,” she continued, “you have untrained staff trying to make these assessments — and what if they are wrong — what are the consequences for thinking a kid might be under the influence and then having them sent home?”

Davis argued that youth who are sent home are no more likely to get treatment, especially if their parents are at work.

After the death of Flores, APS committed to upping prevention education and security, installing boxes of the opioid reversal drug naloxone, known by its brand name Narcan, and ensuring every middle and high school staff member was trained in how to use it.

But a nasal spray won’t help someone in the throes of addition, according to the Wakefield teacher raising rehab money.

“Narcan training is great, but for those deeply mired in addiction, it is not a solution,” she says.

When asked if administrators had received any reports from teachers about Flores or the other students who received treatment at school, an APS spokesperson declined to answer, saying the school system cannot comment on individual students.

The spokesperson said the school involved “follows up with the family and involves the Substance Abuse Counselor who can refer the student and family to Second Chance depending on the individual situation. Substance Abuse Counselors can also coordinate with families for outside services.”

On a hopeful note, at least one of the students among the group that included Flores appears to be doing better, we’re told.

But Prakash called for “consistent” risk assessments by qualified professionals in every instance of drug or alcohol use by students. She says teachers have suggested other proactive steps — “tangibles” — such as clear backpacks and more adults in the hallways.

“I think everyone I have spoken with does agree that the responsibility isn’t on a single individual or administration, but that there really needs to be a community approach to finding solutions,” she said.

Many community members, it seems, have sprung into action. Some 252 residents were trained in administering naloxone in January. This month, that number has jumped to 1,021, according to Dorsey.

He highlighted several upcoming meetings hosted by community groups, Parent-Teacher Associations and the schools. The next one will be held at Kenmore Middle School tonight (Thursday).

But the need for treatment is outpacing the availability of resources, Dorsey said. By the end of 2025, VHC Health — the new name for Virginia Hospital Center — aims to open a treatment facility at 601 S. Carlin Springs Road, an old VHC urgent care facility, in partnership with the Arlington County Dept. of Human Services.

DHS provides daily behavioral health services for youth and adults on an emergency and ongoing basis, but it has a 43% vacancy rate in the Children’s Behavioral Health bureau and an acute need for bilingual counselors. He attributed this gap to high attrition “given the difficult, frontline nature of these jobs.”

The region struggles with the availability of residential, intensive outpatient and after-school treatment programs, he added. Although DHS searches for available slots for clients, they still face barriers like not having sufficient insurance or being uninsured.

“We are exploring the expansion of existing programs when feasible and the development of new programs when possible,” he said. “These ideas will take time, given the need for licensure as well as the need to find suitable capable contractors.”

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