Fighting Fentanyl: Education v Misinformation, Part 1

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Three parents featured in the “dead on arrival” fentanyl video shown at Temecula Valley High School theater Nov. 4 are, from left, Amy Neville, Steve Filson and Matt Capelouto. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo

As fentanyl deaths continue to rise, concerned parents who were directly impacted by losing a child from it created a public service video to help educate others. They hope the short film will find its way to every middle school and high school to help alert young people and their families about the crisis that exists in their own backyards. It is titled “dead on arrival.”

“Educating the public, especially our young people, about the dangers of taking a pill that might be counterfeit and rife with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, is our goal,” Matt Capelouto said. The Temecula resident lost his daughter, Alexandra, in December 2019 after she ingested half of what she believed to be an oxycodone pill.

In response to the fentanyl epidemic, Temecula Valley Unified School District identified the importance of the film’s message and arranged for a showing at Temecula Valley High School’s theater Nov. 4. As part of its Parent University program, district parents were invited via an email blast to the event hosted by Capelouto.

“Mr. Capelouto is a former TVUSD parent who lost his daughter to fentanyl poisoning,” TVUSD’s Director Safety/Security Jason Vickery said. “Fentanyl is the No. 1 killer of youth and young adults in the United States. Matt is focused on bringing awareness of the fentanyl epidemic to the forefront of the American public in an effort to prevent this from happening to other families.”

Capelouto introduced the film created by Dominic Tierno and Christine Wood, by saying, “What you are about to see in this short film is arguably the greatest threat any of us face today.” The documentary included his personal story as well as those of three other parents: Amy Neville, Steven Filson and Jaime Puerta.

Filson said that during his 31 years as a police officer, he had seen a lot of deaths and other terrible things, but nothing could have prepared him for the death of his daughter, Jessica. “We know you have questions and our goal right now is saving lives, your kids’ lives,” he said. “Fentanyl now has our society powerless. We are victims of fentanyl. Knowledge is power and you have the ability to spread this word amongst your families, friends and your community.”

He said the stigma of addiction prevails in our society still but addiction has nothing to do with fentanyl at this particular point. “Spread the message and don’t be afraid to ask. People are afraid to talk to us because of our situation but there is nothing you can say to me that will hurt me or insult me because the truth is what you need to hear, so don’t hesitate,” Filson said.

Neville, who lost her 14-year-old son Alexander to fentanyl poisoning in 2020, said the one thing she hears most people say is “oh my kid will never do that.” She admits her son had a curiosity about drugs at a very young age based on the first drug prevention events he attended at his school. But she points out that their child could be at a party and have a headache and someone says they have something for that and now they’re gone or their kid has an injury and can’t get in to see a doctor and someone offers then something for the pain and now they’re gone.

Kimberly Miller of Temecula attended the event with her two sons, Wyatt and Liam, who are in middle school. “(The film) digs deep and gets down to the point,” Wyatt, 12, said. Liam, 13, said he was surprised at the statistics and considers the film to be a warning he will definitely heed.

Riverside County fentanyl deaths numbered 2 in 2016, 25 in 2017, 55 in 2018, 117 in 2019 and 227 in 2020. District Attorney Mike Hestrin announced the county is on pace to have 500 fentanyl deaths in 2021.

TVUSD Board President Barbara Brosch said she approached the superintendent to make the Nov. 4 Parent University event happen. “I’ve lived in Temecula my whole life,” she said. “I know we have a drug problem here and we need to get it under control.”

Vickery, who spent 25 years with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, said, “When I got here, one of my priorities was to get with the district and help to educate the kids and their parents so they knew about this drug and the devastating effects it’s having on our community. It’s something that’s relatively new but becoming very prevalent everywhere. The goal is that as we keep this awareness going on so more people will have these conversations with their friends and families.”

He said TVUSD is in the process of creating a NARCAN program for all its school sites. NARCAN is a naloxone nasal spray that can possibly reverse the life-threatening effects of a known or suspected opiate overdose in adults and children. It is in a class of medications called opiate antagonists. It would not be possible for a person to self-administer the spray which is why school personnel will be taught how to use it. Vickery is working on coordinating school assemblies about the dangers of fentanyl throughout the district with a goal of reaching the most kids possible. He is also planning a second showing of the film in the near future.

While Capelouto agrees there is a need for NARCAN, he points out that it won’t help everyone. “Most of the parents I meet in my shoes all found their kids by themselves. NARCAN wouldn’t have done any good because there was nobody there to give it to them.”

After the “dead on arrival” video was shown, Capelouto and others took questions from the audience of about 100. A comment was made by parent Jesse Larkin that the theater should have had standing room only due to the gravity of the subject. His son Damon Larkin was 17 when he was poisoned by a fake pill made of fentanyl that he thought was a Xanax pill. Jesse attended the event with his 13-year-old daughter, Marley. “I learned a lot here tonight,” he said.

Vickery said there were 70,000 views to the flier announcing the event for the 27,000 students in the Temecula Valley Unified School District. “This being our first step, we will continue to build on this as a campaign,” he said. “It was also streamed live so more did see the presentation.”

Capelouto said it is important to change the mindset that fentanyl is not a drug problem, it is a poisoning problem. “It’s the murderer of our kids and we need to call it what it is,” he said. He noted that someone suffering from depression, mental illness or addiction is incapable of making rational cognitive decisions. Selling drugs to someone with those problems is no different from selling a loaded gun to someone who is suicidal and that drug dealers are willfully and despicably taking advantage of those who are suffering.

“If you can’t be absolutely 100% certain your child won’t try one drug, one time, then you can’t guarantee they won’t fall victim to fentanyl,” he pointed out.

Special Agent Ed Byrne from Homeland Security, an original member of the Fentanyl Death Investigation Team in San Diego, shared his expertise on the subject of fentanyl and the effect it is having on our society. He got his first introduction to fentanyl in 2016 and has since become the “go-to” expert. “We’re in a tight fight. We are not going to get rid of the problem unless we educate,” he said.

Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Cummings said the prevalence of synthetic fentanyl has changed everything in the past three years. “The news (media) is still pushing the wrong words; it’s not lacing. It’s here and it’s a very tough battle to fight. The only place to draw the line is going to be educating the 8- to 11-year-olds.”

Fentanyl was a legitimate prescription medication when it was created in the 1950s and has been used successfully to treat chronic pain since the 1960s. There is a legitimate pharmaceutical use for fentanyl. Synthetic fentanyl is what is being fabricated these days and being made into counterfeit pills that look like oxycodone, Adderall, Percocet and other commonly sought-after prescription pills.

The experts say that the days of drug experimentation have passed. Kids used to learn from their mistakes and now they are dying from them. Addicts and recovering addicts of fentanyl said the first time they took it they didn’t know they were taking it.

Capelouto said many people blame the parents for not raising their child right but he said his daughter grew up in a two-parent, faith-based household with a normal childhood upbringing and she still fell victim to this. She was on the track team and a cheerleader while at Great Oak High School and was attending Arizona State University on a full-ride academic scholarship at the time of her death. “She did suffer from depression, anxiety and insomnia, and I think this effort to self-medicate cost her her life,” he said. “If she had made this same choice a few years ago, she would be alive today because she most likely would’ve gotten the real drug. Fentanyl has changed everything.”

He said parents need to know how easily accessible these drugs are. Snapchat appears to be the social media platform of choice for drug dealers and 95% of young people aged 13-25 use Snapchat regularly. “The drug dealer is in their pocket, right on their telephone,” Capelouto said. “It’s as easy as ordering a pizza. A few clicks on your phone and you can have the drugs delivered to your door.”

Lisa Sisco has a daughter who is a senior in high school and a child in college. She attended the event because she had been hearing a lot about the prevalence of fentanyl among young people. “I need to go home and talk to my kids; it’s scary,” the Temecula mom said.

The “dead on arrival” video is not copyrighted and therefore is available for free to anyone on Facebook at www.facebook.com/deadonarrivalpsa and www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJgPmrLjkuo.

For up-to-date information, please visit websites created by parents who continue to try to educate others so there are no more fentanyl poisonings. A few of them are druginducedhomicide.org, ANFHelp.org, stopthevoid.org.

Next week, what other school districts are doing to combat the issue.