As schools continue to confront the devastation of the opioid epidemic, educators and health experts put the topic front and center at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin during a panel discussion about partnerships between school districts and health organizations.
In Texas, where the panelists all work, deaths from the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl have continued to rise, increasing 89 percent from 2020 to 2021.
The vast majority of these deaths are in adults, and school-age children and teens only make up a “small sliver of the overall problem,” said Darrien Skinner, a prevention specialist with the Texas Targeted Opioid Response program at Texas Health and Human Services Commission, during the March 7 panel discussion.
Still, he said, schools are an ideal place to focus on prevention and harm reduction, he said: “What can we do to help our educators and help our youth so that they don’t have such a large risk of overdose later in life?”
The Texas Targeted Opioid Response program, or TTOR, is a public health initiative by the state designed to provide prevention, treatment, and recovery services. Some of its work is done through schools.
Texas isn’t the only state to involve schools in prevention efforts. Several districts across the country have started to stock naloxone, a drug that can temporarily reduce the effects of life-threatening overdoses.
Lisa Cleveland, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Nursing, said that demand from schools for naloxone has increased rapidly over the past few years.
Data from the state show that there were 15 school-based requests for naloxone through TTOR in 2019. That number jumped to 342 by 2022. Also in 2022, elementary, middle, or high school educators made up the program’s largest cohort for naloxone trainings. “This is an enormous shift,” Cleveland said.
“I’m really encouraged that schools are wanting to have naloxone, to have it on their campuses. I think that’s a huge step forward,” Cleveland continued. But she sees it as part of a larger strategy that requires more prevention, earlier.
“It’s about arming our students, our faculty, the community in general, about the dangers of fentanyl, and how to protect themselves,” she said.
Texas’ program also includes providing opportunities for prescription drug disposal. The goal of these programs is to remove unused opioid medications from homes, where children may gain access to them.
The state has partnered with the Texas Education Agency to provide drug disposal packets that students can take home, said Douglas Thornton, associate professor of pharmaceutical health outcomes and policy at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy. As of January, the initiative had reached 41 districts.
Research on the effects of these programs is mixed. Several studies have found that when hospitals give out disposal bags to patients, they are more likely to dispose of any leftover drugs properly.
But other research suggests that the total number of drugs returned through public health initiatives, like drop boxes and take-back events, is likely a very small percentage of the total unused opioids in an area.