Durango teens push Colorado for the legal right to administer overdose reversal drugs in public schools
On Thursday (2/08), students and school administrators from Durango told Colorado’s House of Representatives Education Committee that HB24-1003 will save lives.
HB24-1003 extends legal immunity to students who administer so-called opioid antagonist drugs like Narcan on school campuses. (Narcan is a nasal spray that can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.)
While Colorado law grants legal immunity to citizens who administer Narcan, the law is unclear when it comes to students on school grounds. It’s an uncertainty that makes school administrators concerned about legal exposure.
“Some schools will have a policy that bans these antagonists as part of a broader ban on medicines in school,” said state representative Barbara McLachlan, one of the bill's sponsors. “Meaning that students who carry this life saving tool could be doing so at the risk of disciplinary consequences. And all they wanted to do was to save a friend's life.”
McLachlan told the committee that the new legislation offers blanket immunity to students on school grounds and addresses the liability concerns of schools and school administrators.
“This bill is to ensure there is no liability if Narcan is used with good intentions by educators, bus drivers, parents, or students,” she said.
A number of Education Committee members had concerns about students acting as first responders in a medical emergency. Traditionally, teachers, administrators, or staff lead in such circumstances.
“My son right now is 14,” said Anthony Hartsook, a Republican state representative from Douglas County. “I don't know that he can evaluate whether somebody's having an allergic reaction, a medical reaction, a drug reaction. Are we going to ask kids that are in middle school? And then what is the psychological impact that we're putting on these kids?”
Other committee members raised concerns about passing a law that placed a mandate on school districts across the state.
“The sponsor said this isn't a mandate,” said Rose Pugliese, a Republican from Colorado Springs. “But unless I'm reading this wrong, it says a school district or state charter school shall allow a student to possess and administer an opioid antagonist on school grounds on a school bus or a school-sponsored event.”
Meanwhile, advocates for the bill highlighted the rapidly rising rates of opioid overdoses across the US.
“My first encounter with my peers abusing drugs stronger than marijuana was in eighth grade when one of my closest friends came into our Honors ELA class after having taken several mystery pills,” Ilias Stritikus told legislators.
Stritikus joined the hearing online from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he’s a freshman. Last year, he was a senior at Durango High School.
“Colorado has the second highest youth overdose rate in the nation,” he said. “With our youth overdosing at a rate of 2.31 times higher than the national average.”A single overdose that started a movementIn 2021, an Animas High School student overdosed and died after consuming a Percocet tablet laced with fentanyl. While the overdose occurred off campus, several teens in Durango concluded that students should be allowed to carry and administer opioid antagonists during the school day.
Administrators at Durango’s 9R School District were slow to agree with them–at least initially. However, after a group of teen harm reduction activists demonstrated at school board meetings, district administrators changed school drug policy, allowing students to carry and administer Narcan.
This summer, Ilias Stritkus and several other current and former students worked with state representative Barbara McLachlan of Durango to craft legislation.
“I wanted their voices to be the leading voices on this,” McLachlan said in a recent interview.
She started meeting with the teens regularly. She insisted they led the research, reviewed state statutes, and conducted conversations with stakeholders across the state.
“That's a lot of work when you're trying to go to college and trying to work,” she said. “But they did it.”
Now the legislation is on the table, and elected officials are giving it close scrutiny.
On Thursday, more than a dozen people told legislators that schools need help from students to blunt the sharp edge of the opioid epidemic.
“Most overdoses on school grounds are likely to happen in a bathroom,” addiction specialist Emilia Long told the committee. “Students are most likely to find and save other students.”
“It’s a matter of numbers in a sense,” said Carlos Estrella-Rodriguez, a counselor in behavioral health based in Longmont. “When there’s an emergency, we have a better chance of saving lives by also allowing students to carry (Narcan).”
In the end, and in spite of skeptical questions by some members, the committee voted unanimously to advance the bill for a second hearing by the House of Representatives.
Some committee skeptics have said they’ll push for amendments, and bill supporters will be watching for what amendments might be added before the bill has a second reading.
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