Fentanyl epidemic: How are young people being affected and educated?

Chaparral High School
Students leave Chaparral High School Monday, March 2. Students and young adults using opioids recreationally are at risk of being exposed to the highly dangerous fentanyl according to experts on the subject. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

Alex’s dad got everyone’s attention as he read the names.

“I’m here on behalf of Jacob Alexander, 2017 graduate of Chaparral High School. Dec. 3, 2019, dead,” he said. “I’m here on behalf of Caleb Dunlap, senior at Great Oak High School, Dec. 15, 2019, dead. I’m here on behalf of Dylan Perez, 2017 graduate of Great Oak High School, Dec. 17, 2019, dead. I’m here on behalf of Alexandra Capelouto, 2017 graduate of Great Oak High School, Dec. 23, 2019, dead.”

Alex’s dad spoke to the Temecula City Council a little more than a month since his daughter died due to an overdose he said was caused because of fentanyl, a highly-powerful drug that is wreaking havoc all over Riverside County, Southern California and the United States.

“I’m asking you to help me fight this epidemic,” Alex’s dad told the council.

Just a couple of days before Alex’s dad approached the dais, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s Temecula Station issued a special bulletin pertaining to counterfeit pill-related overdoses and deaths in Riverside County.

“A number of overdoses resulted in the unfortunate death of the individual,” according to the statement. “Multiple overdoses have already occurred in the Temecula Valley.”

During this series of articles, Valley News has talked with people on the front lines of the epidemic, from father’s fighting for tougher laws to drug counselors at treatment clinics to first responders dealing with the issue on a daily basis.

While the abuse of opioids is in itself a national epidemic, the addition of fentanyl to the equation has ramped up the urgency to find ways to educate the public and create treatment options for those exposed to the risk.

Illegal street drug dealers are cutting fentanyl into drugs like Oxycontin, Oxycodone, Xanax, marijuana, cocaine and heroin – all popular drugs with young people, including high school students.

“I have a 14-year-old stepdaughter, and I get a lot of insight scoop from her too,” Jessica Seaman, a program nurse at Hill Alcohol and Drug Treatment, said. “What I’ve heard from her and what I’ve heard from several other teenagers is that it’s just everywhere. It’s become so common that you literally go in the bathroom, and there are people dealing in there or you go look under a bush. A lot of the teenagers are using Snapchat for their dealing and then they will leave (drugs) on the school premises, like under a brick or in a bush or buried in the grass.

“One of the students said, ‘Yeah, if you just go dig around at the school and you’ll probably come up with some pills.”

Whether or not drugs are as widely available on local high school campuses as Seaman suggested is another issue entirely, but it highlights the urgency associated with educating young people about the dangers of purchasing illicit drugs on the street.

The Valley News reached out to the Temecula Valley Unified School District for comment on the issue and received a lengthy statement pertaining to several things the district is working on.

The district was not directly questioned regarding the availability of drugs on campus.

“We work closely with the Temecula Police Department and partner with our school resource officers in delivering support, education and resources to our students,” Laura Boss, public information officer for the Temecula Valley Unified School District, said. “One of the growing areas of concern is student contact with counterfeit fentanyl-laced pills. Our valley has already been deeply impacted by the tragic loss of former students as a result of taking these drugs. Unfortunately, this is now a significant epidemic nationally and in our valley.

“School resource officers carry Narcan, which is a nasal spray that counteracts the life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose,” she said. “In addition, the district is currently working with hospital resources to provide training to our school health office staff to be able to administer Narcan in an on-site emergency. While Narcan is available for consumer purchase and administration, a school district cannot place an order for supply until it can provide documentation that appropriate personnel has been trained and certified. It is a priority and district administration is actively engaged in securing the training and resources.”

She said the district has targeted resources toward social-emotional learning and mental health

“Research supports that many of our students who are experiencing with drugs have a correlation to mental health needs,” Boss said. “Staffing resources added include counselors, social workers and intervention specialists. TVUSD schools have adopted preventative and responsive practices that include PBIS, restorative practices, alternatives to suspension, Saturday academies and more. We host a parent university workshop series to partner and provide support and resources to families on issues affecting students. We also partner with Hill Alcohol and Drug Treatment to provide resources to students who have a history of drug abuse.”

Boss said the district has also entered into a contract with Caresolace, an online resource for drug and mental health services, that can be accessed by any student, family or staff member in TVUSD by visiting https://caresolace.com/site/tvusdfamilies.

“Adding these layers of supports and resources is showing promising results in addressing the overall social-emotional, mental health and academic needs of our students,” she said. “Looking forward, TVUSD recently received a grant from the Department of Justice that will provide funding for additional training, intervention and resources for staff, students and families.”

Boss said the district does face challenges as to how they are able to provide education on the subject of illegal drugs in a classroom setting.

“One of the challenges we face is the loss of California required health courses where drug awareness and education were shared in an instructional setting,” she said. “We do still provide education about drugs through science standards.”

She said at the elementary school level, all the schools participate in Red Ribbon Week and other events. The middle schools provide resources and awareness activities that vary from school to school.

Boss said the goal of the district is to provide as much information as possible to parents and students.

“We use social media, email and texting with students and families, our partner resources such as the city of Temecula and police department, chamber, and our local press to share important information,” Boss said. “Our families are inundated with communication from a variety of sources for their children. Most important to us is that our students, staff and families know there are resources and help available.”

She said if someone suspects a child is struggling with drugs or mental health, online resources are available at www.tvusd.k12.ca.us/help or they can contact their local school office.

“TVUSD is truly fortunate to have dedicated, caring and resourceful employees, families and partners committed to meeting the needs of all students in meaningful and innovative ways,” Boss said. “However, we must always strive to do more and that is always our continued goal. Addressing our children’s mental health needs requires collaboration in partnership with our families, our partners, our community and resources beyond the expectations of the classroom.”

As the district attempts to add programs to deal with the growing epidemic for its students, some believe that educating parents is key to saving lives.

Considering the relative safety of cities and communities within southwest Riverside County, there is a perception by many that this epidemic is fueled by bad actors or the homeless population or criminals, when we know based on statements from first responders that opioid drug use spans every demographic.

“I have two kids in two different schools in Murrieta, and I went to school my whole life and Temecula,” Seaman said. “This town has a reputation for, like you said, turning their heads and saying, ‘Oh no, not my…’ A lot of the students that come in here, their parents do everything they can to make sure nobody finds out that their child overdosed or that this was happening to their kid.

“The big problem too is they have no idea the severity of it,” she said. “What’s really crazy too is I’m sitting with them right next to me and two days before I saw them, they were on the floor blue. Their brother who is only 16 and the patient is 14 giving him CPR. And the mom is sitting there watching her son die with her other son giving CPR and you say, ‘How do you feel about that?’ And they say, ‘Huh, well at least (he didn’t die).’ I mean they don’t even register how serious it is. That’s the scary part is that some of them don’t even register that you almost died.”

Even parents that suspect their child is taking pills and buy a drug test aren’t getting the full picture.

“They’ll drug test their kids, well, fentanyl doesn’t show up on every drug test, it’s a special test,” Seaman said. “They think their kids are doing pills or they think there’s something going on and they’re testing them and nothing came up. Then we test them and it’s fentanyl. That’s when everyone says, ‘Oh my God.’”

Seaman said there are some telltale signs that can give parents an indication that their child is using opioids and fentanyl.

“Teenagers are hard anyway because they’re so moody and they have things that are hormonal,” she said. “I think for the most part we have instincts with parents too. And we know what’s normal. So anything that dissuades from their norm. If you have a kid who’s normally outgoing and funny and fun, and then they turn to isolation and anger and irritability, those are all big signs of drug use with adolescents and children because they respond to a lot of different drugs and medications.

“A lot of times it’s when you when they’re overexaggerating on their reactions, hanging out with different people, sleeping more, any appetite changes,” she said. “Even if those are normal things that happen with our teenagers, there are still questions that we have to be able to ask. It’s just being able to have that approach with them.”

According to one young adult receiving treatment at Hill Alcohol and Drug Treatment who asked that his name not be used in the story, obtaining fentanyl or drugs containing is not difficult here in southwest Riverside County,

When asked how easy it was to get fentanyl, he said, “Very easy, about as easy as it is to get weed. The first time you do it you’re pretty much addicted.”

He said he used opioids while in high school, but fentanyl wasn’t as prevalent just a few years ago as it is now.

“You don’t expect (fentanyl) to be in there and all of a sudden it is,” he said. “And then you just have to keep getting it.”

The young man said he believes dealers are putting fentanyl into opioids to get people hooked on the drugs faster.

“Three weeks after I was addicted, I found out (fentanyl) was in there,” he said. “I was just hooked; my brain was just like, get it, get it, get it. And there was nothing I could do until I was put in a situation where I couldn’t get it. And I had to go through stopping and that was awful. I don’t wish that on anybody.”

He said he’s overdosed multiple times.

“I had to resuscitate one of my best friends in my own room for like 30 minutes until I was about to go mouth to mouth, and he finally took a deep breath,” he said. “I was in tears, crying.

“Even when you take it controlled, all the fentanyl could be in that one little area, so you could take all the fentanyl and once and have no clue … and you’re screwed.”

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories pertaining to fentanyl and the fatal risks associated with the drug and its effects on the community. Valley News is speaking to people on the front lines of this epidemic.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at jpack@reedermedia.com.