Park City supt. reflects on student overdose deaths

Park City, Utah, for most of America, is known as the ski resort town where a few downhill events took place during the Salt Lake City Olympics of 2002. Unfortunately, the town made national news once again about a year ago when two students at Treasure Mountain Junior High School died from an overdose of the drug U-47700, known by the street name “pink,” which they had easily and legally obtained over the internet from an organic chemistry lab in China.


Olympic Welcome Plaza, Park City, Utah (Voxitatis)

Park City School District Superintendent Ember Conley has been developing strategies with partners—parents, county health administrators, counselors, physicians, pharmacists, etc.—ever since that day last September when she, as a seasoned teacher and school administrator, found herself managing a crisis that had nothing to do with academic subjects or, in fact, much of the training she had received as she advanced in her career: keeping 4,800 kids safe from opioids.

“I just welcomed 49 new teachers to the district. I showed them our district’s measurable goals, and I showed them our data. But I told them to build relationships,” she told me, referring to the district’s new campaign, dubbed Safe and Healthy. “If students aren’t healthy, they’re not going to be able to learn. I mean, you can teach AP language arts, but if kids aren’t safe or if they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to be able to learn at the levels we need them to.”

She has the same message for parents, spelled out in an article she wrote for this month’s edition of School Administrator magazine, a publication of the School Superintendents Association, as she helps and encourages them, by conducting formal and informal outreach campaigns, to build support networks with other parents to keep kids safe.

“Parenting is hard,” she said. “But these are all our kids—this could be my kid today and your kid tomorrow. Try to avoid passing that judgment, because even with the best parenting, kids are going to make mistakes.”

(1) Be observant of students’ behaviors

Utah’s teens are less likely to smoke cigarettes or use marijuana than the average teenager in the US, but the state has a suicide rate among the highest in the nation and a very high opioid addiction rate. One of the mistakes kids make, then, is using their devices to get access to opioids, either because they’re depressed or because they lack good information about the consequences of using addictive drugs.

Until the government took emergency measures to ban the drug, U-47700 was popular among teens because it was easy to get. Ms Conley said she could still order a derivative of the drug, enough to kill a person, on the internet for under $100 with a credit card or debit card. The derivative, known as U-48800 instead of U-47700, hasn’t worked its way through the banning machinery of the government yet. Getting the highly toxic drug has never been easier.

“I would just do click, click, click, and I could get the drug delivered to my house,” she said. It’s a practical impossibility to restrict access to websites that make pink available, since new ones can pop up as soon as another one gets shut down, so “Learn how to go through your kids’ history. And even though they can delete it, there’s ways to get your kids’ history.”

Kids, she said, are “smart, but they’re not that smart,” when it comes to hiding sites on their devices they know they shouldn’t be visiting.

This brings us back to the idea of building strong relationships. Referring to her own daughter, who’s now in college, she said “she needs to have that open door, to have that channel, to be able to come and tell me things that I don’t really want to know. She needs to feel that she can ask questions, and I think that’s the hard thing, opening that dialog.”

Hard as it may be, when kids open up to trusted adults, those frank and candid conversations could end up saving their lives, especially since the websites or apps used for purchasing the drug are often disguised in a way that would prevent a nosy parent from figuring out their purpose. That info has to come from the kid, and only a healthy relationship can make that happen.

Parents need to put their own phones down, too. Take your kids to the grocery store with you. Have connections without the phone. Interact. Ask some of those questions: What’s going on? What are your friends doing? What’s the buzz? What’s the gossip going on? It helps kids if you’re just getting groceries, right? They’re looking at the cereal, but they’re really talking to you, and they’re really listening—it’s play time, down time, free time, time when they can be creative and let their brains rest.

(2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Parents are encouraged to exchange phone numbers at the conclusion of each informal lunchtime gathering, so they can enlist the help of their sons’ and daughters’ friends and their families in finding out what’s going on. In addition, school personnel have been trained and stand ready to assist parents and other community members when it comes to preventing opioid overdoses in young people.

“We’ve added some counselors this year, social work counselors,” Ms Conley said. “Our board has been really, really supportive. They’ve basically said, ‘What can we do?’ and so we’ve built up those wraparound services.”

The staff has also created a new curriculum, but instead of writing lesson plans for, say, math or English, they’ve written a curriculum around the idea of mindfulness.

“We’re seeing students younger and younger display signs of depression and anxiety,” she said. “Those are some of the root causes of self-medicating, of riskier behaviors. So we’re teaching around ideas like, How do you get to a place? What are some of those things that you can do? We’re starting to teach mindfulness.”

Here’s an example of how it might work, based on positive psychology: In a lesson called “authentic strengths,” teachers and counselors identify a student’s relative strength in more than 20 personality traits, such as courage and kindness.

“We say to kids, here are the strengths you already have,” she explained. “So let’s start by focusing on your strengths, but in the meantime, let’s pair you up with someone who’s weak in those areas.” These peer-to-peer groups tend to reinforce each other, and in the end, all students get stronger in the traits they were weaker in at the beginning of the lesson.

“Breathe. Take a step back. Get yourself to a good place,” she said, demonstrating the kind of lesson students typically get. “Find some things that you’re really thankful for, instead of focusing on that one thing that you can’t fix right now. Those are good life lessons too.”

In addition to pulling all kinds of resources—experts, textbooks, and so on—together to develop a new curriculum focused on mindfulness, resiliency, and grit, the district has also trained key staff members and given them tools appropriate for dealing with trauma and crisis.

All eight Park City school buildings will be stocking a supply of naloxone in the nurse’s office, Ms Conley confirmed. This is a nasal spray that acts as an antidote to an opioid overdose, and first responders in all the district’s schools, including the elementary schools, are trained in the use of this antidote. Furthermore, Utah has good Samaritan and other laws that protect school personnel from liability when administering an antidote like naloxone.

Like Utah, many states have recently passed laws that require schools to stock the antidote. These laws have, however, led to claims that just stocking an antidote might give addicts a false sense of security and encourage them to take bigger risks with opioids.

“I’m not going to go for that one,” she said. “I see the perspective, but I would say, unfortunately, once a child (or adult) is that addicted, if we’re able to save them, maybe then we’re able to help them get the treatment for the addiction.”

Some nurses have found with synthetic opioids like U-47700 and U-48800, she said, that more than one dose of the antidote is sometimes required. “It’s taking up to two to three,” she said. “So that’s a worry.”

As we learn more about these drugs, though, she said she hopes the programs Park City and other districts around the country are implementing will work like the campaign to stop smoking. “Thirty years ago, people were smoking a pack of cigarettes a day in their cars, with their kids in the car, and the kids weren’t wearing seat belts,” she said. “Now, look, right? We’re wearing seat belts. We’re not smoking in cars. In fact, smoking’s diminished greatly. So that’s the hope: we’ve got to start somewhere.”

(3) Don’t give students access to money without accountability

The final piece of advice Ms Conley offered in her article was for parents to restrict students’ use of credit or debit cards or, at least, to hold them accountable for what they purchase. Drug dealers, both legal and illegal, still operate on the principle of profit.

“You really want to trust your kids, and they have trustworthy behaviors,” she said. “But yet you really need that accountability.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.