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At Animas High School, students take on opioid harm reduction

Prompted by the loss of a friend to an overdose, classmates help deliver community resources
Jo Downing, a junior at Animas High School, spoke to students, teachers, parents and community members about her experience with drug addiction at a school event discussing harm reduction on Tuesday evening. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

After their friend and classmate died unexpectedly when he overdosed on fentanyl in December 2021, Animas High School juniors Zoe Ramsey, Zoell Lhomi and Niko Peterson felt blindsided by the sudden intrusion of the opioid epidemic into their lives.

“It took everyone by surprise,” Peterson said.

And so the students decided to take action.

Inspired by a classroom unit about social movements this past fall, Ramsey and her peers teamed up with Erin Skyles, the AHS student support coordinator. Skyles works in the community to combat stigma around substance use and was glad to work with a passionate cadre of students.

Candice Seay, the southwest region manager with Advocates for Recovery Colorado, demonstrates how to administer Narcan on Chris Andrews. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Their efforts came to fruition for the first time Tuesday night, when the school hosted an event to educate students and members of the public about harm reduction. It was the first step in what students say will be an ongoing effort to blunt the impact of the opioid epidemic on young people in Durango.

The event featured a panel of four speakers: Brooke Coffey, a counselor with Axis Health; Jo Downing, a junior at AHS who is in recovery; Lt. Joseph LaVenture, a member of the Southwest Drug Task Force; and Chris Andrews, a chapter lead and program coordinator with Young People in Recovery.

Various community partners, including San Jan Basin Public Health, Sexual Assault Services Organization, Young People in Recovery and Pediatric Partners of the Southwest, sent representatives to table and provide information.

The event ended with a training from Candice Seay, the southwest region manager with Advocates for Recovery Colorado, on how to administer naloxone. The drug, better known by the brand name Narcan, can instantly reverse an opioid overdose.

Narcan in schools
Candice Seay points to difference brands of naloxone, the drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. The drug can work within seconds and has the capability to save the life of someone who has overdosed. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Students and AHS staff members had originally planned to distribute Narcan nasal spray after the training. However, the question of whether students should carry Narcan reached a flash point last month.

AHS decided not to distribute Narcan at the event after students from Durango High School confronted Durango School District 9-R on Jan. 24 over the district’s policy that students cannot carry or administer Narcan in schools.

Because AHS is a charter school, it is not subject to 9-R’s policies. But Skyles said the showdown between the district’s administration and students gave AHS pause.

“That encouraged us to have conversation (and ask) ‘What is our stance on this?'” Skyles said. “... We’re still working on a policy. We don’t have specific policy around it.”

Students say they hope to increase access to the resource, especially given that students are more likely to overdose at social gatherings, not at school.

Naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse an opioid overdose and does not have an adverse affect when administered to someone who has not used opioids. It typically comes with two doses per box and is easily administered in the form of a nasal spray. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

“We just want students to be allowed to carry because our teachers – even though they’re trained and they have Narcan – they are not going to be the ones at different parties. It’s going be the teenagers from schools,” said Lhomi, one of the student organizers.

The drug replaces opioids on the nervous system’s opioid receptors, which can restore the body’s basic functions. The drug, which is easily administered through a nasal spray, is now carried by members of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and Durango Police Department.

Critically, Narcan can save the life of someone who has overdosed on opioids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it does not have adverse effects if administered by mistake to someone who has not consumed opioids.

Under Colorado law, anyone who “acts in good faith to administer naloxone to another person whom the person believes to be suffering an opiate-related drug overdose” is immune from prosecution. But Durango School District has argued that only trained employees are protected from civil liability or criminal prosecution when administering Narcan on school grounds.

Although AHS is pondering a policy on students carrying Narcan, organizers decided to proceed with the training and provide information about how students can find it. Narcan can be obtained at pharmacies without a prescription. SJBPH also has a harm-reduction program and the department holds regular events at which they distribute Narcan and fentanyl test strips.

Harm reduction versus abstinence

Skyles and students built the event on the foundational concept of harm reduction, rather then advocating abstinence.

Panel members discussed how to recognize the signs of substance abuse and the precipitating factors that lead to it, as well as the resources available for those who are working to combat addiction.

Chris Andrews, a chapter lead and program coordinator with Young People in Recovery, said harm-reduction measures kept him alive during a point in his life when he was not able or ready to accept treatment for substance use. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Andrews, a panel member who is also in recovery himself, told the audience that open dialogue is key to achieving better outcomes.

“Try to create an environment within the home with a trusted adult where these conversations can come up and they don’t have to have shame, guilt or fear around these conversations,” he said.

When asked specifically about the topic of harm reduction in contrast to abstinence, Andrews responded that his battle with addiction has been long – 16 years – and that he was not ready to engage in treatment for most of that time.

Harm-reduction strategies, such as clean needle exchanges, “pretty much kept me alive,” he said.

Panel members also stressed how critical it is to create spaces for open dialogue. Downing, the AHS junior now in recovery, told the audience that rather than opening up to her family, she became skilled at hiding the problem from them.

“Part of the way that my addiction and substance abuse manifested was that I learned how to become very sneaky,” she said. “I learned how find those signs that I was exhibiting, the signs that I was using, and catch them before anybody else did and hide them so that nobody would find out that I was using. On the surface, I was doing good. I hid all the nasty stuff.”

Brooke Coffey is a dual licensed counselor at Axis Health System. She told audience members to be curious about those in their lives as a means of engaging and preventing bad outcomes when it comes to substance use. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

Coffey, who is dual licensed as a professional and addiction counselor, said simple engagement is a powerful tool that family members can use to check on their loved ones.

“It’s important for us just to be curious about our loved ones,” Coffey said. “I hear too often when I meet people that, in the moment, they didn’t see those changes.”

One father in the audience, who declined to give his name to protect the anonymity of his 13-year-old son, came to the event to learn more about how to engage with his adolescent son who has begun to experiment with substances.

He caught his son smoking marijuana one morning before school, and since then has had to navigate ensuring his son’s safety without souring their relationship. He asked the panel about it, and Peterson, the student moderator, piped up.

“Let your kid know that being honest will get him in less trouble than lying,” Peterson said.

Presenters at Tuesday’s event to educate students and members of the public about harm reduction emphasized that destigmatizing drug use and encouraging conversation around it is one of the most critical elements in reducing negative outcomes. (Reuben Schafir/Durango Herald)

The father said he found the advice valuable.

“It’s great getting their perspective,” he said. “Kids have to deal with parents – it’s fresh for them.”

As students hurried to clean up tables and chairs Tuesday night before heading home to finish their homework, Skyles said there would be more events in the future.

“Our plan is to talk to community members, mostly our youths, about what they want and what they’re looking for with regard to substance-use education in general, and then figure out how to give it to them,” she said.


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