As the school year begins, homework and homecomings are the main concern for most students. But looming in the background is a more serious—and deadly—problem: fentanyl.
Fentanyl is an odorless and tasteless substance that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Illicit drug manufacturers have increasingly used fentanyl in recent years to cut other drugs.
The nation is in the grip of an addiction and overdose crisis and synthetic opioid fentanyl is wreaking havoc among young people. In Santa Cruz County, K-12 school districts and colleges are engaging in awareness campaigns to inform students and parents about the dangers of this silent killer.
The Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE) began a countywide education campaign last year that included training on how to use Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, a nasal spray that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Teenage opioid overdoses have tripled in the last two years, according to the COE website.
Nada Oskoloff, the director of student services for Scotts Valley Unified School District (SVUSD), said that her district has been working closely with the COE.
“The school districts were really made aware of the crises that our country is experiencing, [that] the state of California is experiencing and even in the county of Santa Cruz,” Oskoloff said.
During the 2022-23 school year, SVUSD held a parent night in conjunction with the COE and county health services personnel. Parents and students were informed on what opioids are, what an overdose looks like and how to administer Narcan.
According to the COE, every school district in Santa Cruz County has Narcan available on its high school campuses, along with staff trained in its use. It is also available at a growing number of middle and elementary schools.
In June of this year, the COE together with Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) held a free drive-thru Narcan event at the Watsonville High School parking lot. Doses of the nasal spray were distributed in hopes of making it widely-accessible to teens and families.
Alicia Jimenez, PVUSD’s public information officer, said that the district had yet to see a fentanyl overdose at one of their campuses. Almost every month during the last school year, PVUSD hosted events relating to the opioid crisis, including a fentanyl town hall last October.
While schools are addressing the problem and most have not yet dealt with campus overdoses, local medical professionals are seeing a rise in fentanyl-related emergency room visits.
Dr. Marissa Haberlach has been an emergency room physician at Watsonville Community Hospital for the last two years. She said that throughout that time, there has been a marked increase in opioid-related visits involving young people.
“Absolutely, I would say there’s been a general uptrend in the number of opioid as well as other substance overdoses. We’re seeing a lot of young people who are using Xanax or what they think is Xanax, or other medications that ended up having fentanyl mixed in with them,” Haberlach said.
Local efforts to raise awareness around this issue have increased and Watsonville Community Hospital hosted an End Overdose event on International Overdose Awareness Day. The event hosted medical professionals to speak on the dangers of opioids and a free Narcan distribution was held before the panel began.
The panel also included an overdose survivor and one mother who has become an advocate for fentanyl awareness in the wake of her teenage son’s death.
On March 26 2020, Lisa Marquez lost her only son, 17-year-old Fernando Sanchez.
Fernando and his friends had purchased counterfeit Xanax from a dealer on Snapchat. It was laced with fentanyl and Fernando suffered a fatal overdose. At the time, Marquez did not know what fentanyl was, but has since versed herself on the substance. Marquez has worked incessantly to inform other parents in her Gilroy community and beyond about the dangers of fentanyl.
“I went to my Facebook and I felt like […] I need to warn kids, I need to warn parents that there’s fake pills in Gilroy and my son just died from that,” Marquez said.
Her initial Facebook post went viral, amassing over 2,800 shares. It led her to connect with other parents affected by fentanyl overdoses or abuse. Marquez added that the scope of the crisis is not fully known yet, but that it is leaving a devastating impact. “It’s taking out a whole generation of these youths,” she said.
The stigma around overdose deaths is similar to that of suicide for these parents, Marquez said: many don’t speak up about it out of shame.
“I’m not an expert. All I know is that I’ve sat with enough parents and heard enough of them and their stories,” Marquez said.
Dr. Marissa Haberlach echoes Marquez’s sentiments about the stigma attached to overdoses.
“What I would really like parents and educators to know is that the young people who are dying from overdoses from fentanyl, and using other recreational drugs, they’re not all bad kids, which I think is the stigma. They’re young people who are curious about something new, they’re taking something they perceive as safe,” Haberlach said.
Marquez has spoken at high schools in Salinas and is hoping to amplify her message. She said that while other school districts in the area have hosted her, school staff in her hometown of Gilroy have not followed up with her.
Since speaking at the End Overdose event, Marquez is working with hospital staff to set up speaking engagements at Santa Cruz County schools. She is encouraged by the county’s educational imperative around fentanyl awareness and is ready to share her experience with more parents.
“I lost my child. And by me sharing my tragedy…I’m doing this so you don’t have to,” Marquez said.