The night before José Alberto Pérez’s fentanyl overdose, the 14-year-old begged his mother not to take him to the hospital because «he was not a drug addict.»
“Her lips were ash white. His pupils bulged out,» said the boy’s mother, Lilia Astudillo. But she gave in to his wishes, despite his obvious anguish.
Astudillo planned to take his son to medical attention the next day, but by morning he was already dead.
«It hurts to see your son after he’s gone and ask yourself: Why didn’t I know this before to help him?»
Jose, who died in January, is among nearly a dozen students spread across three schools in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas who overdosed on fentanyl from September to March. He is one of three who have died.
The wave of overdoses has caused shock and anger among families in the Carrollton community, about 20 miles north of Dallas. It’s also a sobering reminder of how rampant fentanyl has reached young people in recent years.
“I never thought a high school would have drugs like this,” said a mother whose 14-year-old daughter, also a student in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch district, survived a fentanyl overdose this year.
“I cannot imagine the pain of another parent going through what I am going through,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used to protect her daughter’s privacy.
Fentanyl, a highly potent and addictive synthetic opioid that can be fatal with as little a dose as tip of a pencilhas devastated adult populations for nearly a decade. But mass proliferation of drugs in recent years, coupled with a Covid pandemic that eroded adolescent mental health, has given young people a broader path.
The monthly median fentanyl overdose deaths in people ages 10 to 19 increased 182% from July to December 2019 compared to the same period in 2021, according to a December report report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 2,200 teens suffered a fatal overdose in the two-and-a-half-year period from July 2019 to December 2021, with fentanyl involved in 84% of the deaths, the report found.
Adolescent fentanyl overdoses have been reported in communities across the country, since ArlingtonVirginia, to portland, oregon. In it Los Angeles School District Only, at least seven teens overdosed within a month last year after taking pills possibly laced with the drug.
The overdoses in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District were connected to three people who lived a few blocks from the school, according to a federal complaint.
All have been charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
But that’s little comfort to parents in Carrollton who are devastated and terrified for their children.
“I painted a world of wonder for my children,” Astudillo said, adding that he immigrated to the United States to get away from crime in Mexico. «And it turns out that here it was worse.»
The mother of the 14-year-old boy who survived an overdose said families of victims are clinging to each other for support. Many, like her, are Spanish-speaking immigrants who have been unable to get help accessing treatment and resources, she said. Some are too embarrassed to speak.
«I think they are ashamed, but we should not be ashamed, because this can happen to anyone.»
Teen Overdose Epidemic ‘Overlapping’ Declining Mental Health
Carmin Williams’ daughter, Khloe, was introduced to and became addicted to fentanyl when she was 12 and attending Bea Salazer, an alternative education school in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch School District, last spring.
Williams said Khloe, now 13, had been transferred to the school, the same one Jose attended, due to behavioral issues. She had been battling anxiety and depression, Williams said.
Someone at school “offered her a pill and said ‘if you’re down or going through something, this will lift you up’ and that’s how they’re hooking so many kids,” said Williams, 39.
That’s not an uncommon story, said Dr. Scott Hadland, an addiction specialist and chief of adolescent medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Hadland said that fentanyl began to seep into the adolescent population before the covid pandemic, but the period of social isolation negatively affected the mental health of young people, leading some to seek ways to self-medicate with drugs that were not prescribed to them. they prescribe and they are often counterfeit.
According to the CDC’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, released in February, more than 40% of boys and girls said they felt so sad or hopeless in the past year that they couldn’t do their usual activities, like homework. or sports, for at least two weeks, with girls being more likely to report such feelings.
A seperation CDC report found that 41% of adolescents who died from an overdose had evidence of mental health conditions or treatment.
Adolescent mental health is a crisis now superimposed on the «overdose crisis,» Hadland said.
“For some teenagers, many of whom I care for, taking a pill or medication for a mental health problem is exactly the right treatment,” she said. «It’s just that you want to be evaluated by a doctor, connected to therapy and prescribed the correct medication, not an illicit counterfeit pill.»
After her daughter overdosed on fentanyl last summer, Williams moved with her family to Carrollton to give her daughter a new environment away from the one that led to her addiction.
“We should talk more about mental health and be more open to getting help when we know we need it,” he said. “This starts at home, but it must continue at school.”
Some Carrollton parents said their anger has been compounded by a lackluster response from the school district.
Astudillo said that despite the language barrier, he had asked the school for help for his son many times before he and the other students overdosed, but the school did not act.
In a statement to NBC News, the district said it is «deeply concerned» about the safety of its students.
“We have taken several steps to educate parents about the dangers of fentanyl. In November, CFB organized and conducted two community parent drug awareness programs (in both English and Spanish) to educate parents about the dangers of drug use among teens. Our Crisis Team and two Licensed Chemical Dependency counselors have developed drug awareness presentations for students and are presenting these talks on secondary campuses. CFB has initiated random canine searches on our campuses.”
Some parents criticized the school for acting too late.
“The worst thing is, how could they not know that all this was happening?” Astudillo said.
The community needs a ‘comprehensive plan of attack’
More than 30% of Carrollton residents are Hispanic or Latino, many of them immigrants.
Latino teens are proportionally overrepresented in overdose deaths, according to the cdc data, that counts fatal and non-fatal overdoses of all drugs, not just fentanyl, and that 21% of the victims were Hispanic or Latino. About 60% of those who died were white and 13% were black.
“It is a major problem that affects everyone, but it is exacerbated in the Latino community,” said Carlos Quintanilla, who runs Acción América, a nonprofit group that works on issues facing Latinos in the Dallas metropolitan area.
“The parents are monolingual, many are undocumented, many are afraid to contact the police, many believe they cannot access any type of medical treatment, so they shut up, they stay quiet, they are ashamed and then they are devastated,” Quintanilla said. .
Community outreach must be «outside the box,» he added.
“This traditional type of all these white counselors and vice principals talking about fentanyl addiction, that doesn’t work in our community,” he said. “You have to go to the bazaars, you have to go to the shops. You have to go to the football fields, you have to go out there and create a comprehensive plan of attack to deal with this life-threatening situation.»
Yet schools rarely receive guidelines or standards for drug education, so it becomes «the dealer’s choice,» said Nichole Dawsey, executive director of PreventEd, a Missouri nonprofit group that educates young people about drugs. For most, education happens after tragedy strikes, she said.
“There is no comprehensive education, prevention or early intervention at the federal or state level,” Dawsey said, adding that the nonprofit groups or foundations “were mostly started by parents of victims or after a person lost their life.» They are the ones who go out to educate.”
Like PreventEd, these groups are funded in part through government grants and private donations.
Federal grants awarded intended to fund drug prevention programs have not always produced results that match the prevention goals of the National Drug Control Strategy, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found in a report 2020.
Dawsey said fentanyl awareness was incorporated into PreventEd’s drug program about two years ago as overdose rates increased.
In its state of the union Last month, President Joe Biden promised to «launch a national campaign to educate young people about the dangers of fentanyl and how naloxone saves lives,» through the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Ad Council.
Schools should be given more support and funding and infrastructure to take on this, but the onus isn’t just on them, said Dr. Sarah Bagley, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of California’s Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine. Boston. Prevention is «a shared responsibility,» and federal and state strategies to address youth overdoses would be helpful in identifying stakeholders in the community who might be responsible for the different parties.
After Khloe survived an overdose, Williams said she visited several treatment centers that refused to treat her daughter because of her age. She had to face treatment alone, like many other parents in Carrollton.
“Parents want their children to help, but it just isn’t working,” he said. “They fight the battle, it is not easy. It’s hard. It’s stressful. Bill passes.»
If you or someone you know is struggling with an alcohol, drug, or other substance abuse problem, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free and confidential helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357), or visit findtreatment.gov.