Should educators be able to give a lifesaving dose of Narcan to a student overdosing on opioids? Absolutely, say backers of a law tearing through the state legislature. But the teachers union says not so fast.
Two years ago, more than 3,600 high-school seniors reported that they’d tried heroin at least once in their lifetimes, and more than 4,500 said they used pain killers to get high. During the four years leading up to that state Healthy Youth Survey, about 300 young people aged 15 to 24 died of heroin- or opioid-related overdoses.
Despite these numbers, a group of vocal parents says Washington schools have not taken significant action on the prevention, or intervention, of opioid addiction.
At a legislative hearing in Olympia last month, several from the Northshore School District sought to change that by testifying in favor of a bill that would allow public schools and college dorms to stock and administer the anti-overdose medication Narcan.
“It’s rather a no-brainer,” said Corina Pfeil, a Northshore parent who helped push the proposal onto legislators’ agenda. She’d never considered the problem of opioids in school until touring Inglemoor High for her son in 2016 and learning that the private bathrooms there had been closed after a student was caught using in one.
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“That really alarmed me,” Pfeil said. “Heroin in schools is truly scary, and no one is talking about it. A lot of parents are embarrassed and ashamed — it’s really that dirty little secret.”
Neither the state education nor health department tracks overdoses that occur in school settings. But Martin Mueller, an assistant superintendent at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said increasing access to Narcan is all to the good. Aside from students, there have been reports of parents and other adults overdosing on school property, he added.
The teachers union, however, is urging restraint.
“We are not supporting the legislation,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association. “I don’t think it’s clear how much of a problem this is in Washington, and in the actual operation of a school, who would bear the responsibility? We need to answer these questions before moving forward.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, provides for training and protects anyone designated to administer Narcan from liability for attempting to save a life — similar to rules governing the use of epi-pens for allergic reactions.
It passed the House with a 79-19 vote, and Pollet expects the Senate to begin deliberations this week.
“We need to educate people to recognize overdoses and enable school and college dorm staff to administer — especially since so few public schools have nurses on hand,” he said. “This bill may not do the most to prevent or treat addiction. But if it saves one life, it’s important. And it probably will.”
Marisa Carew believes her daughter Giovanna could easily have been a casualty. She began using pills in high school, dropped out before graduating and is now, at age 21, a full-blown heroin addict.
“Every time I use, I try to get to that place where I overdose,” the young woman told her mother, according to Carew’s testimony in favor of the proposed law. Narcan has saved her daughter more than once, she said.
Timing is crucial when administering the overdose-reversal medication, so having it on hand is critical in places where medics must travel long distances, said Maj. Brian Howard, of the King County Sheriff’s Office.
“From a cost-benefit analysis there is no reason not to adopt this,” he said.