Students are dying from overdoses and this is a public health problem

Last month, seven students in the Los Angeles Unified School District overdosed on fentanyl, one of them getting high on a school campus.

We have the choice to decide what kind of crises we face and the strategies with which we must deal with them. But we cannot continue the decades of failed and punitive policies that led to the current opioid epidemic. More than 100,000 Americans died in 2021 from a drug overdose in a single year for the first time in history. This represents an increase of 28% over the previous year.

Educators are already taking action. Kelly Gonez, the president of the Board of the Los Angeles School District (for its acronym in English, LAUSD) announced a constructive approach that recognizes the problem of illegal drug overdoses as a “community crisis” that must be addressed through “ proactive education and support.” Others, like the Apex Academy charter school, where two students who allegedly sold fentanyl are enrolled, are backing off by conducting random searches of students in classrooms and considering bringing in drug-sniffing dogs. The Drug Enforcement Agency and the Los Angeles Police Department are now ready to intervene further. But we cannot continue with decades of failed and punitive policies that led to this crisis.

For many years, the United States has responded to drug use with punishment and criminalization. The so-called “War on Drugs” has cost trillions of dollars since the 1980s. And what achievements do we have to show for it? The number of people incarcerated and who have overdosed on drugs has quadrupled since then. Most of them are people of color.

Black and Latino communities have been devastated by poverty and incarceration. Educational settings have become links from school to prison. In fact, some students are more likely to encounter drug-sniffing police dogs or surveillance cameras at their schools than nurses or counselors. Public schools in California already have twice as many police officers as social workers and there are also more security guards than school nurses.

Instead, we must recognize the opioid epidemic for what it is: a health crisis. It is a problem that cannot be solved with handcuffs and jail. Rather, it can only be resolved by providing students with care, support, and compassion.

Students need support and a healing process. We know that arresting or disciplining students has never decreased their drug use. Instead, these practices associate substance abuse with shame and punishment. They further push dependence on banned substances into the shadows where addiction continues to grow unaddressed.

A recent study found that the “traditional policing approach to drug-related crime did not reduce arrests or incarceration and was associated with a risk of future overdose deaths.” Another study found that suspending or expelling students has the highest correlation with drug use, suggesting that students have more opportunities to use drugs when they are expelled from school and are in unsupervised settings. This is also a racial justice issue, as research confirms that punishment for drug-related behavior is targeted at Black and Latino youth, even though White youth are just as likely to use or sell drugs.

Real solutions require examining the underlying root causes of why students turn to drugs in the first place. Student drug use does not occur in a vacuum. Adolescent drug use is correlated with childhood trauma from abuse, domestic violence, and serious illness. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long recognized that youth who use high-risk drugs are at increased risk of “mental health problems and suicide.” So they are also more likely to “experience violence, such as physical and sexual dating violence, and be intimidated, threatened or hurt.”

Decades of underinvestment in our schools have left us unprepared to address this growing health crisis. We must meet this challenge by investing in more home and school health resources, including school counselors, psychologists, psychiatric social workers, and nurses. We must also focus on scaling up evidence-based solutions that have been shown to be effective in saving lives, including overdose prevention centers, fentanyl test strips, safe supply, drug decriminalization, public education campaigns and the Barrier-free access to naloxone and other life-saving rehabilitation therapies.

Our students have proven to be more resilient than we could ever imagine during the pandemic. But they have had to put up with a lot. It is our obligation and it is a debt to solve the opioid epidemic. But we can’t do that by stripping them of their civil rights, expelling them, or putting them in prison where they are even more likely to experience substance abuse. Rather, we must do the hard work to address the root causes behind substance abuse to help our students make the right decisions and to support their recovery if they make a misstep.