Bucking statewide trends, Arlington County may be seeing opioid overdoses trend down this year.
So far this year, Arlington registered 44 overdoses with Narcan — a brand name for the opioid-reversal drug naloxone — deployed in 35 instances. Of the overdoses, eight involved juveniles, all of whom received Narcan.
That marks a 31% decrease this calendar year in total opioid overdoses, compared to other Virginia jurisdictions still seeing increases, says Emily Siqveland, the opioids program manager for the county.
That is the good news, to be taken with a more sobering projection that Arlington County is not seeing a similar decline in fatal overdoses. As of this time last year, Siqveland says Arlington had the same number of fatal overdoses as it does now: 15.
Arlington County has been significantly affected by the opioid epidemic wreaking havoc on the country and the region, where the Inova health system estimates some 32% of adults have a family member or friend with an addiction. In response, the county has joined lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies linked to the opioid crisis, putting settlements toward treatment.
It was the January 2023 death of 14-year-old Sergio Flores after overdosing at Wakefield High School, however, that threw a spotlight on the use of pressed pills among young people and a lack of local treatment options for them. His passing prompted a surge in activity and conversations within Arlington Public Schools, the county and the broader community.
Eight months later, some of that work is coming together.
Works in progress
The hyperlocal focus on young people dovetails with findings from Inova that younger generations are particularly touched by addiction. It found 32% of Gen Z and 39% of Millennial survey respondents reported having a family member or friend with an addiction.
APS has hired one substance abuse counselor and is finalizing paperwork for the other, says Darrell Sampson, the school system’s executive director of student services. This would bring the total number of counselors to eight serving the division.
This year, the Dept. of Human Services and APS are preparing to station four county therapists in the high schools. To date, 320 high school students have family consent to carry Narcan in school.
“With the additional substance abuse counselors, we’re able to expand supports to middle schools,” Sampson tells ARLnow, noting insufficient support for 6-8th graders was a concern in the community. “We want to try to keep [kids who are experimenting] from blowing up into a more full-blown addiction or using even more concerning substances.”
In June, several years after closing down its juvenile treatment program, National Capital Treatment & Recovery (NCTR) — formerly Phoenix House — debuted its new adolescent intensive outpatient program this summer.
As of yesterday (Thursday), NCTR has admitted 13 patients and has had to turn away referrals from outside the county, which it cannot accept at this time, NCTR Chief Clinical Officer Pattie Schneeman tells ARLnow.
“I anticipate the referrals will increase now that school has started, because that is often where we start seeing the needs surface, i.e. when it interferes with school attendance, etc.,” Schneeman said.
A week after announcing an arrest for a 2022 fatal overdose, Arlington County police have charged two more people in another deadly opioid overdose.
A 19-year-old Arlington man and 19-year-old Fairfax woman are facing manslaughter and other charges in connection to a March 2023 overdose in the Courthouse area. A man died after being found unresponsive in a stairwell; police say he was sold drugs containing fentanyl by the suspect, Shan Mehmood.
A LinkedIn page suggests that Mehmood was a 2021 Washington-Liberty High School graduate. He now faces manslaughter, drug, and gun charges, while the female suspect faces a charge of Accessory After the Fact to Manslaughter.
ACPD said in a press release, below, that it “remains committed to thoroughly investigating narcotics incidents and holding accountable those who traffic dangerous and deadly narcotics into our community.”
The Arlington County Police Department’s Organized Crime Section is announcing two arrests following an investigation into a fentanyl overdose death. Shan Mehmood, 19, of Arlington, VA is charged with Involuntary Manslaughter, Distribution of Fentanyl, Possession with the Intent to Distribute Fentanyl, and Possession of a Firearm while Possessing Fentanyl with the Intent to Distribute. He is currently being held in the Arlington County Detention Facility. Eliana Ayelen Mendoza, 19, of Fairfax, VA is charged with Accessory After the Fact to Manslaughter and was released from custody after posting bond.
At approximately 6:45 p.m. on March 7, 2023, police were dispatched to the 1200 block of N. Scott Street for the report of a medical emergency. Upon arrival, officers located an unresponsive adult male in the stairwell of a residential building suffering from an apparent fentanyl overdose. He was transported to an area hospital and, despite lifesaving measures, passed away on March 8, 2023. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined cause of death to be acute fentanyl intoxication.
During the course of the comprehensive investigation, detectives assigned to the Organized Crime Section identified Shan Mehmood as the individual suspected of supplying the deceased with controlled substances. At the time of his arrest, narcotics and a firearm were recovered.
The Arlington County Police Department remains committed to thoroughly investigating narcotics incidents and holding accountable those who traffic dangerous and deadly narcotics into our community. This remains an active criminal investigation and anyone with information related to this incident is asked to contact the Arlington County Police Department’s tip line at 703-228-4180 or [email protected] or anonymously through the Arlington County Crime Solvers hotline at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477).
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are numerous resources available through the Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative. For additional community resources and contact information, visit our website.
When Arlington firefighters respond to drug overdoses, they could soon start bringing along enough doses of an opioid-reversal drug to leave some behind.
This is part of a statewide effort “to prevent fatal overdoses and increase community access” to the nasal spray Narcan, one form of the reversal drug called naloxone.
On Saturday, the Arlington County Board is set to approve a memorandum of understanding with the Virginia Dept. of Health to get more state-provided Narcan into the hands of the public.
Through the Narcan “Leave Behind” Program, VDH has authorized EMS personnel, firefighters, law enforcement officers, school nurses and others to give Narcan doses to overdose witnesses, as well as to the family and friends of people who use drugs.
The infusion of Narcan is part of national, state and local a focus on reducing harm to drug users. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved Narcan for over-the-counter use.
Some advocates worried this would not do enough to bring the price of Narcan down. Others criticized the FDA for prioritizing the more costly nasal spray over the less-expensive generic version that is injected and said government-led, pharmacy-based distribution efforts do not reach the people who need it.
That is where the distribution of Narcan at the scene of an overdose could be effective, coupled with other harm reduction efforts led by Arlington’s Addiction Recovery Initiative, including fentanyl test strip and medicine deactivation bag distribution.
Higher-ups in the Arlington County Dept. of Human Services previously connected these efforts to a drop in fatal overdoses since 2021.
There are also new opportunities to learn how to administer the overdose reversal drug, which operates similar to a nasal spray.
Community members can get trained in using naloxone on June 7 at noon and 7 p.m. on Zoom. People can register by emailing [email protected] and can request naloxone, Fentanyl test strips and medical deactivation bags online.
In-person training and Narcan distribution is available later this month on May 17 and June 21 from 3-6 p.m. at DHS headquarters (2120 Washington Blvd, Room 112). No registration is required for in-person training.
As of last Wednesday, Arlington County police had investigated 55 incidents involving opioids this year, per county data. Since Jan. 1, 2023, there have been 20 opioid overdoses, of which six were fatal, according to ACPD.
There was a fatal overdose at Wakefield High School in January followed by a near-fatal teen overdose in a Ballston parking garage in March. The quick application of Narcan by first responders helped to save those who overdosed in the parking garage.
Some treatment options, like a new rehab facility, will take a while to open. In the meantime, Arlington Public Schools and the county have put money toward more education, substance abuse counselors, after-school programming.
After the FDA approved Narcan for over-the-counter use, APS announced it would be advancing plans to allow students to carry the nasal spray in schools, with parent permission and training, as early as May 26, WTOP reported.
Narcan is also stocked in emergency boxes throughout middle and high schools.
An Arlington doctor is facing federal charges after a grand jury indicted her for the illicit distribution of opioid pills.
Dr. Kirsten Ball is facing nearly a dozen counts of charges related to oxycodone distribution. Federal prosecutors say she and her office manager, who was convicted and sentenced last year, conspired to dispense “vast quantities of oxycodone to her patients — contrary to ordinary standards of medical care.”
One patient received prescriptions for “as many as 360 oxycodone 30-mg tablets per month,” while another received a prescription to treat “long-term pain” while they were performing “manual labor on Ball’s home,” according to a press release.
The charges potentially could land Ball, 68, in prison for decades. Despite the allegations, reviews of her care on a doctor rating website are generally positive.
“Very caring, affirmative, straight forward yet, gentle approach to health care,” wrote one patient. “If you need a professional physician, with a comforting approach, Dr. Ball is a great choice!”
Arlington has been hard hit by the national opioid crisis. There were more than 70 fatal opioid overdoses here between 2015 and 2020, according to Arlington County Police Department statistics. The crisis has also infiltrated local schools, with the fatal in-school overdose of a Wakefield High School student this year helping to spur action by Arlington County and Arlington Public Schools.
The press release about the indictment is below.
A federal grand jury returned an indictment this week charging an Arlington doctor with distributing tens of thousands of oxycodone pills for almost a decade for no legitimate medical reason.
According to allegations in the indictment, Kirsten Van Steenberg Ball, 68, was a primary care physician who operated a medical practice out of her home in Arlington. Ball allegedly conspired with her office manager to shield the fact that she was dispensing vast quantities of oxycodone to her patients—contrary to ordinary standards of medical care—from law enforcement and regulatory authorities.
The indictment alleges that Ball’s office manager, Candie Marie Calix, 40, of Front Royal, used an alias to disguise the fact that Calix was, herself, a patient of Ball. According to the indictment, Ball allegedly prescribed her office manager approximately 50,000 oxycodone pills over a period of approximately 10 years.
The indictment further alleges that the Virginia Department of Health Professions (DHP) investigated Ball twice: once in 2015 and once in 2021. Despite the two investigations, Ball did not change her prescribing practices. According to the indictment, examples of Ball’s prescriptions include the following:
- Prescribing a patient as many as 360 oxycodone 30-mg tablets per month;
- Prescribing similarly high quantities of oxycodone to close family members;
- Paying a patient to perform manual labor on Ball’s home while concurrently prescribing the patient oxycodone, ostensibly for long-term pain;
- Loaning a patient $40,000 while concurrently prescribing the patient oxycodone;
- Continuing to prescribe oxycodone to patients after they failed drug screens.
Ball is charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute oxycodone, and 21 counts of distribution of oxycodone. If convicted, she faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison on each count. Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after taking into account the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Calix was sentenced to seven years in prison on September 28, 2022, for conspiring to distribute oxycodone.
Jessica D. Aber, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Wayne A. Jacobs, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Washington Field Office Criminal Division, made the announcement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine E. Rumbaugh is prosecuting the case.
Seven years after ending its substance use treatment options for youth, a local facility is poised to resume providing some outpatient services.
National Capital Treatment & Recovery CEO Debby Taylor tells ARLnow that Arlington County approached the center about providing therapeutic services to youth in the county after 14-year-old Sergio Flores fatally overdosed at Wakefield High School. The center has since obtained licensure to provide intensive outpatient and outpatient services and could be ready to debut its programming this spring.
“We had always hoped to get back in adolescent treatment, but we felt that we needed to do just the outpatient services at this point,” she said.
Since Flores died in late January, the county and Arlington Public Schools have mounted a “full court press” to address this issue, Dept. of Human Services Deputy Director Deborah Warren told the Arlington County Board during a joint work session with Arlington Public Schools this past Friday.
“The tragic loss of the 14-year-old has knitted the county and APS in a way we weren’t before,” Warren said. “I’m really impressed with the rapid response and the alignment on the urgency of the problem. We are developing all kinds of innovative ideas for how to help children and adolescents to address the emotional mental health crisis.”
In addition to the forthcoming contract with National Capital Treatment & Recovery, the county is looking to put DHS clinicians in high schools and work with neighboring jurisdictions to open a medicated withdrawal and treatment facility for adolescents. Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative has ramped up training in the opioid reversal drug naloxone and the distribution of Narcan and fentanyl test strips.
“All staff members will be trained in the use of naloxone by the end of April,” APS Executive Director of Student Services Darrell Sampson told the County Boar. “Naloxone is available on all floors in secondary schools and we are exploring additional mental health education for school staff and high school students.”
Warren said fatalities from overdoses have reduced 40% through AARI’s training and distribution efforts.
“This is literally saving lives,” she said.
The number of fatal overdoses peaked in 2021 and has since decreased dramatically, Suzanne Somerville, the county’s bureau director of residential and specialized clinical services, tells ARLnow.
“AARI believes that it is related to the distribution and accessibility of harm reduction services,” she said. “The county has made a strong push to get Naloxone and Fentanyl Test Strips to anyone who is interested. We tracked the distribution of harm reduction tools and number of overdoses and extrapolate that there is a correlation between the two.”
That said, AARI has noticed “a significant increase in younger people overdosing” related to pressed pills, she noted. There have been seven juvenile overdoses, of which one was fatal, seven juvenile Narcan uses and 17 total opioid incidents involving minors.
That is why DHS is focused on filling the gaps in substance use treatment for youth, beginning with National Capital Treatment & Recovery, with which Warren said her department is “on the cusp” of a contract.
“We have significant gaps in our system of care for substance use disorders in kids,” Warren said. “We have really developed these services for adults in the last five to six years, in response to the opioid crisis. We are working hard to develop contracts with vendors to fill in these gaps.”
Taylor anticipates opening in about a month, after finalizing the paperwork and hiring clinicians, preferably those who are bilingual. The county has offered to cover operating costs until the program is accredited and can take insurance reimbursements.
Arlington County’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation says it has a surfeit of programs for teens — but not enough teens to fill them.
Between July 2021 and June 2022, DPR logged 6,350 visits to its teen programs, down from 46,500 visits during the same span of months across 2018 and 2019. The dramatic drop was caused by the cancellation of programs during the 2021 fiscal year, according to County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed budget.
That year, DPR logged a low of 3,286 check-ins to teen programs. Now, the parks department is aiming to get those kids involved in activities once again. It projects 24,000 visits to teen programs in the next fiscal year.
“I think that, during the pandemic, a lot of teens reverted to their phones, to their rooms, and really didn’t get out into parks and into our centers,” Jane Rudolph, the director of the parks department, told Board members during a budget work session last week. “I look forward to working with our partners to get them back.”
The Arlington County Board is also motivated to see higher participation in these programs, which are geared toward preventing risky behavior and increasing physical activity, among other goals.
County Board members indicated they would like to see these programs figure into the county-wide effort to tackle the mental health and substance abuse epidemics affecting Arlington youth. Member Takis Karantonis kicked off a round of questions for Rudolph about how her department plans to boost offerings for teens and tweens.
“It’s not so much expanding the offerings but getting people into the programs we offer. That’s where we see our biggest challenges,” Rudolph said. “Where we need to do better, to be honest, is getting word out more about our programs, working better with schools so kids understand where they can come to us.”
Before the work session, ARLnow had asked DPR to share its offerings for teens and tweens. It provided a long list of offerings, including:
- “Out of School Time” programs daily at Gunston and Thomas Jefferson Community Centers
- More than 100 summer camps from exploring outdoors to coding, as well as volunteer and employment opportunities through other camps
- Esports, flag football and basketball leagues
- An annual soccer tournament in partnership with the Arlington County Police Department Gang Prevention Task Force
- DJ and music production classes
Recent community meetings on opioid use, however, encapsulate the gulf between what is offered and what the community actually knows about.
When a group of Latino parents convened the same week 14-year-old Wakefield High School student Sergio Flores died from an overdose, many parents did not know what options were available but seemed desperate for after-school programs and open recreation time at the school gyms, meeting organizers told ARLnow.
In another meeting ARLnow attended a few weeks later, at Kenmore Middle School, a representative from Arlington County Police Department asked the audience to guess how many programs the county has for youth. The answer was more than 300, but one parent challenged how helpful sheer volume if there is a lack of awareness and enrollment is a challenge.
Arlington County is offering residents free training on the anti-overdose drug Narcan.
The sessions are available as an hour-long online training course or an abridged, 10-minute training over the phone.
To help promote the trainings, County Board members will be trained on the use of Narcan at their meeting this afternoon, the county said in a press release.
Arlington has seen elevated levels of opioid overdoses in recent years, including a fatal overdose at Wakefield High School in January and a near-fatal teen overdose in a Ballston parking garage three weeks ago. The quick application of Narcan by first responders helped to save those who overdosed in the parking garage.
Rising overdoses among juveniles in particular have resulted in calls for more vigilance in schools and expanded local addiction treatment options. The string of student overdoses this year has also prompted action by Arlington Public Schools.
More on the Narcan training in Arlington, below, from a county press release.
Arlington County is committed to reducing fatal overdoses in Arlington and offers multiple opportunities for community members to be trained in using the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone, also known as Narcan.
Narcan is a safe and effective medication that can reverse an overdose of opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin, and/or fentanyl. If you or a loved one are experiencing addiction or are prescribed powerful narcotic painkillers, you should have Narcan on hand. You can find Narcan at your local pharmacy or via the County’s website on Overdose Reversal & Naloxone.
The Arlington County Board will receive this training from the Department of Human Services on administering Narcan at their Recessed Meeting on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.
The training highlights the importance of familiarity with Narcan and demonstrates the ease and accessibility of the County’s abridged 10-minute training. “I view this as a basic emergency response skill for everyone in our community, and we are looking forward to having Human Services join us on Tuesday to share just how quick and easy it is to receive training that can save someone’s life,” Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said.
The meeting can be viewed via the County website and YouTube, and is broadcast live on Arlington TV, the County’s cable channel, with live captioning on Comcast 25 & 1085 (HD) and Verizon FiOS 39 & 40. Videos of Board meetings are archived on the County website (with captions and staff reports) and on YouTube.
(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) As more parents and caregivers grapple with substance use addiction among youth, they are increasingly turning to the juvenile justice system as a last resort.
Over the past year, there has been upwards of a 100% increase in the number of petitions being made for court-ordered services, such as drug treatment, according to Hon. W. Michael Chick, Jr., a judge with the Arlington County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
“They are coming to the court to say, ‘We’re desperate, please save my child,'” he said in a video message to parents shared during a panel discussion on drugs last night (Monday) hosted by three high school Parent-Teacher Associations and the Arlington County Council of PTAs.
“They are children with severe substance addictions and they’re desperate,” said Chick.
“To have kids come in front of you, asking for a treatment program and you’re not able to provide it — to have a kid beg you to put them in detention to save them from themselves — it’s heartbreaking,” he continued, reinforcing reports that youth are effectively detoxing in the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria.
There have been at least seven juvenile overdoses in Arlington County this year, including the death of 14-year-old student Sergio Flores after a fatal overdose at Wakefield High School. Following his death, teachers, parents and School Board members have called on Arlington Public Schools and all of county government to do more for children.
A slew of school– and community-sponsored panels have brought together first responders, counselors and addiction specialists and prosecutors to educate parents. The most recent was held last night at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, featuring a live panel discussion as well as pre-recorded messages, drawing some 200 virtual and in-person attendees.
An emerging theme at these meetings is the role of parents. The panel was as an outlet for a handful who shared first-hand observations as well as obstacles they face obtaining resources for their kids and getting through to them, with some panelists suggesting different ways parents can step up.
One mother shared how her daughter recently attempted suicide twice, part of a mini-rash of student deaths and attempted suicides this school year, and how long it took to schedule meetings with the right school officials to obtain accommodations to keep up with her schooling.
Michelle Best, who co-facilitates a parent support group through the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, empathized with how hard it can be for parents to receive services from the public schools in these situations.
“There’s a lot of information that could be better given to parents, out there in a better way,” she said.
A few panelists put the onus on parents, including Deputy Chief Wayne Vincent, the leader of the ACPD Community Engagement Division, who encouraged parents to tip the police to known drug dealers.
“I can’t tell you how many times, when I’m in our community, I hear, ‘Wayne, how do you not know who’s dealing? Everybody knows,'” he said. “Here’s a flash. No, not everybody knows. The police don’t know. There are so many ways you can help identifying who they are.”
Drug use intervention programs for youth are in short supply in Arlington County, according to people who help youth with substance dependencies.
The need is particularly acute for younger teens, as the onset of exposure to and abuse of drugs is trending younger, National Capital Treatment and Recovery Clinical Director Pattie Schneeman said in a recent panel.
“‘There’s nothing out there for adolescents.’ I hear it all the time,” says Schneeman, acknowledging that National Capital Treatment and Recovery, formerly Phoenix House, stopped serving children in 2015 because insurance reimbursements did not cover operating costs.
“If you have money, you can send someone to a posh program. You can pay for services,” she continued. “But if you are average, middle-class or a low socioeconomic family, you have no resources, and it is very sad and devastating to our communities.”
Arlington is seeing a rise in youth obtaining and using opioids, with an increasing number overdosing both on and off school grounds — or effectively detoxing in the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria. In some cases, they are prescription, but in many others, they are buying illegally manufactured pills laced with the deadly drug fentanyl, from local gangs or through social media, police say.
The death of 14-year-old student Sergio Flores after a fatal overdose at Wakefield High School has driven teachers, parents and School Board members to call for more action and support from APS and Arlington County. Conversations since then have revealed the barriers throughout the continuum of care to actually treating kids.
For instance, school-based substance abuse counselors can only educate — they cannot provide treatment, according to School Climate Coordinator Chip Bonar, while appropriate treatment options can have a months-long waitlist. The division of the Arlington County Dept. of Human Services that works with children and behavioral health has 43% of its job positions unfilled and acknowledges there are few residential substance use treatment options.
It will be at least two years before VHC Health — formerly Virginia Hospital Center — opens its planned rehab facility. Two years is a long time, however, considering that less than a month passed between the death of Flores and a near-fatal teen overdose Wednesday.
To beef up treatment options, and expand services in the nearer term, Arlington is turning to settlements with manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies it alleges have been key players in the opioid epidemic. Just last week, the Arlington County Board agreed to participate in a proposed settlement against Teva, Allergan, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and their related corporate entities.
The Board voted to approve the settlement in an unannounced vote at the end of a lengthy meeting.
“This is the latest in a series of settlements that are part of the larger National Opioid Settlement,” said county spokesman Ryan Hudson. “The total funding awarded to the County from these agreements continues to evolve as more settlements are finalized. All opioid settlement funding will be used on approved opioid abatement purposes.”
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.”
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?”
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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.
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.)
If you missed the School Board Work Session on Opioids & Substance Use in APS: Education & Prevention last night, I encourage you to watch the recording & share it because important info was shared about substance use & the administration of Naloxone. https://t.co/W9s3mqZJu0
— Francisco Duran, Ed.D. (@SuptDuran) February 8, 2023
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.