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Colorado law empowers students in public and charter schools to be Naloxone first responders

 Durango High School and Animas High School Students rally before the 9-R School Board meeting on February 28, 2023.
Clark Adomaitis
Durango High School and Animas High School Students rally before the 9-R School Board meeting on February 28, 2023.

KSUT reporter Clark Adomaitis has been following the issue of Narcan in school. Explore his stories on the topic.

Yesterday, several leaders of Durango’s teen harm reduction movement joined a video call organized by the sponsors of House Bill 24-1003 while state legislators and Colorado’s lieutenant Governor gathered in the state capital for a bill signing ceremony.

Some of those teens are out of state at college now, while others joined from the halls of Animas High School in Durango. But they were all still in high school when they came together two years ago.

Following the death of an Animas High School sophomore from an accidental Fentanyl poisoning, several of these teens launched a campaign to change local school district policy. After they succeeded in pushing Durango’s 9R School District to allow students to carry and administer Narcan on school grounds, they helped write a bill to change state law.

“This bill is all about agency,” said State Senator and bill co-sponsor Dafna Michaelson Jenet at the signing ceremony. “It is telling kids you are smart enough, you are strong enough, you are ready to make the decisions that are necessary for you, for your friends, and in this case, in the life of your friend.”

Students as emergency responders

When students started picketing school board meetings in January 2023, changing state law wasn’t part of their campaign. They were focused on a school policy that prohibited them from carrying any medication (unless they had explicit permission to do so).

But they wanted to be able to carry Naloxone (known by its brand name, Narcan), a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

They carried signs that read, “Narcan Saves Lives,” and demanded the right to administer the drug during the school day and on school grounds in the event of an overdose emergency.

In public testimony at these meetings, some teen activists claimed that students and schools were protected by good Samaritan shield laws already in place in Colorado. But school administrators disagreed.

“There is a legal risk,” said Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango’s 9-R school district, at a board meeting in January 2023. “The state statute does not cover students, and that is according to our attorneys. This is probably one of the reasons no other school district has done this at this point.”

At that same meeting, Cheser also raised a more fundamental question: Should students, most of them minors, be allowed to administer medication in an emergency?

“It's not just about carrying it, it's really ultimately about if they have to use it,” she said. “Instead of a trained adult. And just, the tremendous responsibility this would put on, say, a 14-year-old.”

Within a few months, the 9R board of directors voted to change its policy, putting in place some provisions for student training, controls to manage the supply of Narcan to students, and requiring the parents of teens who carried it in schools to sign a liability waiver.

Changing state law

By summer vacation, some of those same teenagers were working with state House Representative Barbara McLachlan to draft House Bill 24-1003.

During the summer and into the fall, the team met every two weeks, talking with stakeholders and discussing strategy on what the bill should and should not contain. McLachlan empowered the teens to take the lead on research.

“I didn't even know what a legislative declaration was before all of this,” said Animas High School senior Zoe Ramsey. “Then I wrote one, or I helped write one.”

The goal was to clarify that anyone administering Narcan on school grounds is protected from liability.

“It could be a football game somewhere or a school event,” said McLachlan. “We need to make it very clear that there's no liability for students trying to save somebody's life.”

However, during a legislative hearing for the bill, several Colorado House Education Committee members questioned whether young people should given this responsibility.

“What is the psychological impact that we’re putting on these kids saying, ‘You’ve got to make this decision.’?” said Colorado House representative Anthony Hartsook at a hearing in February 2024.

“My son right now in high school is 14," he added. "I don’t know that he can evaluate whether somebody’s having an allergic reaction, a medical reaction, or a drug reaction.”

Students, parents, educators, and administrators heard members of the House Education Committee speak on February 8, 2024.
Students, parents, educators, and administrators heard members of the House Education Committee speak on February 8, 2024.

However, teen harm reduction activists and medical experts argue that administering Narcan is not risky.

“I would say that Narcan is idiot-proof,” said Zoe Ramsey. “It's so easy to use. There are such limited side effects…unless I am that one in 10,000 who gets a little bit of hives.”

Ramsey and fellow Animas High School senior Niko Peterson testified in support of the bill at Colorado House and Senate hearings. As part of the team that wrote the bill, they understand why adults are worried about young people carrying the responsibility of administering first aid, but they are also concerned about the drug use they observed among peers at school.

“I know students who used to come to the school on a bunch of Xanax,” said Ramsey. “I know kids who will do Molly at lunch and then come to school.”

“I know people who are doing heroin,” Peterson added. “Actively using heroin at our age. Ketamine and cocaine, Molly, acid, it's all it's all present here.”

A small but significant shift

Schools typically require trained adults to take the lead in emergencies. Durango 9R District administrators point out that so far, there has not been an opioid overdose (or suspected overdose) at any Durango schools. But they acknowledge that schools are prepared for such an emergency, including grade schools.

Colorado’s new law marks a small but significant shift in the emergency response landscape for students at public and charter schools across the state.

Students are empowered to carry and administer Narcan regardless of whether a school district has a policy in place and without permission from schools. The new law also resolves some legal gray areas.

“The question was, are the schools immune?” said José Esquibel, director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention. “Schools wanted to know, ‘Are we going to be liable for something that occurs on school campuses, and could a parent or someone else initiate a lawsuit against the school?’”

The law also expands the definition of “good Samaritan” in Colorado with respect to students and Naloxone. Students are explicitly shielded from criminal and civil liability and school disciplinary action. Possession of Naloxone may not be used as probable cause to search a student's bag or as a pretext to profile or question a student.

“It makes it clear that we want students to be good samaritans,” said Esquibel.

The empowerment of students means that school districts across the state now have more legal cover.

“It does take away a lot of the risk we were worried about,” said 9R Superintendent Karen Cheser. “I think we still are only the second school district in the country that has a very formalized policy.”

But Cheser also points out the law means districts may have to play catch up. With students able to legally carry and use Narcan, she believes districts should establish policies to ensure students access to training, and schools should prepare to respond to overdose scenarios in which a student may decide to administer Naloxone.

“The goal in school is never for students to be the first responders with Narcan or Naloxone,” Cheser said. “If a student goes into the bathroom and they see someone who appears to be passed out, we wouldn’t expect that that student would automatically give (that person) Narcan. We’d expect they’d run out in the hallway and start screaming for an adult to come. However, if the student is there and they’re screaming and they happen to have Narcan on them, go ahead, be the first responder.”

However, students no longer need such permission in Colorado. If an overdose occurs on school grounds, a student can act.

“People can't just expect for (an overdose) to only happen when adults are around,” said Niko Peterson. “Sometimes the kid has to be in charge in that situation. And that’s just the reality of it.”
Copyright 2024 Four Corners Public Radio. To see more, visit Four Corners Public Radio.

That story was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Adam Burke
Clark Adomaitis