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County supervisors approve required fentanyl education, Narcan distribution at schools

Fentanyl and its dangers for young San Diegans are top of mind for some local leaders. KPBS reporter Jacob Aere tells us about a new initiative to teach kids about the hazards of the drug and to keep them safe.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a proposal to require fentanyl awareness education in the county's classrooms as well as distribute naloxone to parents and students and train them on how to use the medication.

The proposal, sponsored by Supervisors Jim Desmond and Terra Lawson-Remer and District Attorney Summer Stephan, also seeks funding to support on-campus drug and alcohol awareness programs.

During the supervisors meeting, many members of the public expressed their relief that some form of education is happening: Twelve children under the age of 18 died from a fentanyl overdose in San Diego County last year.

That’s more than twice the number in 2020.

“When we’re looking at our youth it's primarily accidental,” said Jim Crittenden, a drug and alcohol Prevention Coordinator at the San Diego County Office of Education.

Crittenden said the biggest risk are counterfeit pills – drugs that kids might think are one thing, but actually contain fentanyl.

“They could be self-medicating, they may think they're getting an Oxycodone, or a Xanax or even an Adderall – and it's going to contain fentanyl,” he said.

Crittenden said even very small doses of fentanyl can kill, so prevention is key.

“We know that prevention works and kids are really smart. They just need the tools, they need the education, they need the evidence-based training,” San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan said.

Accidental death caused by fentanyl is the leading killer of people between the ages of 18 and 45, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), far exceeding the number of deaths caused by car accidents, COVID-19, heart disease and gun violence within that age group.

"Fentanyl is a poison, and we need to start treating it like a weapon. One pill can kill," Desmond said. "It's time we confront the realities of fentanyl in our communities. It's killing our youth and causing extreme harm to our county. We must address this head-on, by talking to our kids and understanding the risks of illicit fentanyl."

KPBS spoke with California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond on the matter.

“It is a crisis and we should never lose students in this way. And so we've got a lot of work to do to help keep our students safe and that means also educating students and their families how to be safe,” he said.

On June 28, the supervisors directed the county's chief administrative officer to work with the Health and Human Services Agency to "develop recommendations and implementation plans to declare illicit fentanyl as a public health crisis," a statement from the supervisors reads.

"We cannot stand by as young people across our county die tragic deaths from fentanyl," Lawson-Remer said. "With this vote, the county is advancing best practices in harm reduction and redoubling our commitment to keeping San Diegans safe from dangerous drug overdoses."

CDC data released earlier this year found overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl increased from an estimated 57,834 in 2020 to 71,238 in 2021. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine, officials said.

"Today's board action can be transformational in saving the lives of our children and youth from the deadly threat of illegal fentanyl," Stephan said. "Unfortunately, key mandates and funding for drug prevention were removed in our state in 2009. Today brings renewed hope that we can empower our students and parents with knowledge to prevent fentanyl overdoses, which killed 12 children in San Diego County last year."

In 2009, the state's Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities — part of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act — was eliminated and the mandate for school districts to use prevention curriculum was removed and defunded.

"Too many families have lost loved ones that could have been saved if they were armed with the necessary information to make the right choices or the single tool needed to reverse one costly mistake," San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Paul Gothold said. "Even one death is too many, which is why all of us at the San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego County Board of Education are committed to addressing this epidemic."

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