U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn takes part in a roundtable discussion on fentanyl overdoses at Colorado Springs School District 11 central office on Aug. 15, 2023. (Katherine Beard for Colorado Newsline)
Leaders from local school districts joined U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn and other advocates for a conversation Tuesday on how to prevent fentanyl overdoses among students across El Paso County.
The roundtable focused on how fentanyl has become a leading cause of death and what schools and elected officials must do to prevent additional overdoses. According to data from Lamborn’s office, 874 teenagers in Colorado were hospitalized last year for overdoses, a vast majority of which involved fentanyl.
Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, re-introduced the Protecting Kids from Fentanyl Act alongside U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Boulder Democrat, in July to create federal grant funding that would provide education on fentanyl, as well as opioid reversal treatments, for school districts.
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Educators at the roundtable, which took place at the Colorado Springs School District 11 central office, expressed excitement about the legislation and asked the congressman how they can help support it, but they also wondered if the bill’s $146 million is enough to get the job done. Lamborn agreed it’s not enough, but he said it’s a good start and he’d do what he can to expedite the bill through Congress.
“I think people will see it as a good investment,” Lamborn said. “I think it’s a very strong bipartisan thing that everyone who thinks about it for more than five seconds is going to agree with and then be supportive of.”
Michael Gaal, superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11, said the effects fentanyl is having on students is a national crisis El Paso County is feeling at the local level.
“Having this type of legislative support from Congressman Lamborn and others allows us to be prepared to ensure that all our students are given not just that first chance, but sometimes that second chance,” Gaal said. “High school is supposed to be about learning through your failure and experience.”
Susan Wheelan, director of El Paso County Public Health, worked along with other local officials to put together a quarterly data brief on fentanyl, showcasing its impacts in the community. With 17 school districts across the county, she said distributing accurate and credible information to make sure everyone is aware of the danger will take collaboration.
Matt Riviere lost both of his sons to fentanyl in 2021 because they thought they were taking oxycodone, but it was laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl. They died side by side in their own house.
Riviere, who attended the roundtable, said people around him experimented with different drugs when he was growing up, too, but they’d live through to the next day.
“Kids today, they’re not waking up,” Riviere said. “One bad choice, and their life is gone.”
He said a lethal dose of fentanyl looks similar to about 10-15 grains of salt. The same year his sons died, Riviere said 70% of the 107,000 drug-related deaths across the country were attributed to fentanyl.
“Imagine a 737 airliner, fully loaded, going down every day of the year into the ground,” Riviere said. “If that happened in America, that would be on the front page news every single day.”
Annual fentanyl-related deaths in Colorado from 2016 to 2021 increased from 102 to 912, according to the El Paso County Public Health data brief. The death toll grew in 2022 to 920, and Denver already saw a 16% increase in the number of deaths from fentanyl in the first half of 2023.
Wendy Birhanzel, superintendent of Harrison School District 2, said educating only students about fentanyl isn’t enough, because it affects the entire community when it shows up.
“When our kids go home, their parents are not understanding that those Skittles they brought home are laced with fentanyl, and we’re getting that into our community and it’s deadly,” Birhanzel said.
Lamborn credited the educators at the event for their commitment and work on the front lines to prevent additional fentanyl deaths among students.
“What you do here in this room for high school kids is going to carry forward when they go into young adulthood,” Lamborn said. “Schools are a huge part of the young people’s contact in the community and their role in the community, so what you do is so critical, and it goes beyond everyone in this room.”
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