The young activists who successfully fought to become the first school district in Colorado to allow students to carry and administer Narcan are working with state House Rep. Barbara McLachlan to create a bill they hope to introduce by January 2024.
During his student council campaign speech, Leo Stritikus promised his peers that if elected, he would fight to minimize harm related to drug overdoses. Stritikus, a Durango High School junior at the time, was elected as 2023 class president and wasted no time contacting school officials, working with overdose prevention groups and educating himself on harm reduction.
“We have 106,000 overdose deaths in the country each year. That's three times the amount due to firearms. This is a huge hidden issue,” Stritikus said. “So I wanted to make sure that the approach I took was as accurate as possible.”
Before the start of his senior year in August 2022, Stritikus met with the 9-R district nurse and Durango High School administration to discuss the possible use of Narcan by students. Narcan is a nasal spray that reverses the effect of opioid overdoses.
Narcan was considered a medicine, and he was informed it wouldn't be possible for students to carry it because of district policy.
“It was disappointing, but I figured, ‘Well, this is a no-brainer; there's no adverse side effect to using Narcan,’” Stritikus said.
Maintaining his promise to the class of 2022-23, Stritikus’ six-month push for harm reduction began after that meeting. He marshaled support from fellow classmates and his twin brother, Hays Stritikus.
The twins said they have always had a passion for activism, whether it be related to climate change, gun control or abortion rights. Hays spent a full term on the 9-R school board as an ex officio student member and helped cofound Superintendent Karen Cheser’s Student Advisory Council. He also spent time on the Durango School District’s Safety and Security Council, headed by Kathy Morris. His knowledge pertaining to the school board strengthened their case for carrying Narcan.
“My brother and I have different fields of expertise from our various experiences, and we can lean into the strengths of the other one and cover weaknesses,” Hays said.
In April, District 9-R finalized a policy allowing students to carry and administer Narcan at school.
“The power and success in our movement really came from the student body,” Leo said. “It was truly a very beautiful thing, because we had people from all sorts of social groups, all sorts of backgrounds together on this united front.”
After graduating from the high school in May, the Stritikus brothers met with Rep. McLachlan to draft a bill that will, at a minimum, encourage schools to train their students in the use of Narcan. They are in the process of establishing the statute details.
“There are only a couple schools in the country that are pushing for this, and I love that little rural Durango High can be a leader and help students across the state,” McLachlan said.
Their goal is to make the bill as effective and realistic as possible. The twins will spend the summer assembling community and student meetings and gathering sponsors for the bill. McLachlan said she is excited to educate young adults about the legislative process.
“We’re hopeful that people can see this not as a political issue or a Democrat or Republican issue, but an issue of human life,” Hays said.
Leo will attend Dartmouth College in the fall, and Hays will attend The University of Richmond. They plan to continue efforts of advocacy and activism on the East Coast. Both are considering studying policy change. Dedicated to the success of their bill, Leo and Hays are prepared to give testimonies and attend meetings over Zoom while at college.
“If we ignore the next generation, we’re doing ourselves a disservice,” McLachlan said. “Drug overdose was never really a problem when I was in school, but it is now, and students are addressing it. It’s an act to help save lives.”
From being partners in speech and debate, knowledge bowl, lacrosse, doubles tennis, and social and political advocacy, the Stritikus twins have grown up on teamwork. They both served as interns on McLachlan’s reelection campaign.
Their progressive fight for harm reduction drew attention from across the country. Two graduate students at the Berkeley School of Journalism, Jean Zamora and Misha Schwarz, closely followed The Durango Herald’s coverage of the events starting in January.
Looking to conduct a project about harm reduction for their graduate showcase, Zamora and Schwarz traveled to Durango to film a 10-minute short documentary entitled “Why Not Us.” The film highlights the Stritikus twins and sheds light on the reason behind DHS students’ fight for a Narcan policy change.
“What happened in Durango might be a sign of what’s to come for the rest of the country as Narcan becomes more and more accessible,” Zamora said in an email statement.
The Stritikus twins say the Berkley students reached out to them via Instagram and hosted Zoom and phone calls to discuss the pressing issue. They followed “Students Against Overdose” through school board meetings and protests.
“With increasing presence of fentanyl in drugs, and the natural stage of experimentation in teenage years, the question of whether high school students can carry Narcan will only become more relevant,” Zamora said.
“We’ve always been partners in crime,” Leo said. “When we were little, we would listen to NPR more than we watched cartoons, so you know, we’ve been political since we were young.”
The Stritikus twins have coined the name “Students Against Overdose” and hope to have a piece of legislation written with sponsors and advocacy mechanisms in place to be passed by the end of the year.