When Dillon Hill took a small pill that he thought was Percocet, but was actually Tylenol laced with fentanyl, he felt like he was sitting by a warm fire on a winter night, wrapped in a blanket, sipping hot cocoa.
Only 15 minutes later, it felt like rats were chewing on his bones. The high was rapidly wearing off and if he didn’t take another pill, it felt like he was going to die.
“For a few months I thought [the Percocet] was real, until I overdosed,” said Hill, 18. “I was like ‘oh [expletive], it’s fake.’ And then I was like ‘I don’t care.’ It gave me a feeling I liked, that’s all I cared about.”
Despite fentanyl being the deadliest public health crisis in the country, school districts in the Seattle area are only just now adopting districtwide, fentanyl-specific curriculum in their classrooms. It is often parents who have lost their children to fentanyl deaths, or individual students, like Hill, who approach school districts to implement campaigns.
One of the most challenging facets of the fentanyl crisis, though, is that many of the high school students who become addicted to the drug do so unknowingly: Like Hill, they were seeking out Percocet or other drugs like Adderall, Xanax or OxyContin.
They often take the pills so they can better concentrate on schoolwork or to get high while socializing, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration and student interviews, but don’t know that the pill might be laced with fentanyl — leaving them either with a different type of high that can feel even better than the one they are used to, or, if the amount of fentanyl is high enough, causing them to overdose and become knocked out, or worse, die.
Last Tuesday, two students in the Bellevue School District overdosed unknowingly from fentanyl. They were successfully revived with the overdose antidote naloxone, administered by the Bellevue Fire Department, and taken to the hospital.
Funding and programming around fentanyl use is only gradually starting to appear more in schools: The DEA launched the “One Pill Can Kill” presentation in the fall of 2021 and works to build more relationships with school districts each year.
Now the presentation is offered at assemblies or in science classrooms in school districts that request it from the DEA, such as Issaquah, Lake Washington, Auburn and Northshore.
“The more I listened the more I thought, ‘this is so scary, this is a nightmare thing,’” said Sofia Kovalenko, 18, a recent graduate of Liberty High School in the Issaquah School District, after viewing the presentation. “The sheer amount of information I didn’t know. It was a monumental thing to hear.”
Teachers talk about fentanyl to students in “unstructured time,” Kovalenko said, but she hadn’t learned about it formally until the DEA presentation.
The only requirement of school districts at this point appears to be a law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May 2019, mandating school districts with 2,000 students or more to have at least one set of opioid overdose medication doses in every high school.
However, the amount of Narcan, a medication that is effective in reversing opioid-related overdoses, on each campus and the number of staff members trained in using Narcan can vary widely. Often it is the school nurse who has been trained to administer it.
Many districts are implementing more training for staff and students starting this fall. That includes Seattle Public Schools, which recently received a $300,000 grant from King County to offer overdose prevention and response training for all SPS staff.
Fake prescription pills
Fentanyl is in “every fake pill that you can buy on the internet or through social media sites right now,” said Jake Galvan, acting special agent in charge of the DEA Seattle field division. “It’s even in cocaine and in methamphetamine.”
Fake pills are also becoming more deadly: Six out of 10 fentanyl-laced prescription pills analyzed by the DEA laboratory in 2022 contained a lethal dose of fentanyl, compared with four out of 10 the year before, the agency said in a public safety alert.
Both deaths and nonfatal overdoses are soaring locally, including for young people. In 2022, 25 people under the age of 20 died of an overdose, according to King County Department of Health data, compared with 13 people in 2019.
In 2022, 345 people under the age of 20 experienced a nonfatal overdose from opioids, compared with 233 in 2019, according to data from the King County Department of Health’s EMS response team.
But in a survey of 1,500 students ages 13 to 17, two-thirds of respondents said they didn’t know fentanyl could be present in fake pills. The survey was commissioned in August by Song for Charlie, a national nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers of fentanyl.
“The traditional avenues of drug education may talk about fentanyl and the danger of fentanyl but they don’t talk about the deception part of it,” said Jennifer Epstein, Song for Charlie’s director of outreach and education. “Kids need to understand they might be using for Xanax and they could get fentanyl instead.”
She warns that when schools focus only on Narcan and preventing deaths on campus, it isn’t enough. “The awareness really needs to go beyond the campus because it is not just an issue that is on campus, it is more likely to happen elsewhere,” said Epstein, whose organization creates educational resources for schools.
For many schools, the fentanyl epidemic hit in the midst of or right after the COVID-19 pandemic, Epstein said, when they were depleted and overwhelmed. “This was something that schools were really not prepared for,” she said.
While pills are commonly laced with fentanyl, the role of vape pens in the crisis is less clear, despite a handful of news stories across the country that describe cartridges containing fentanyl. Experts and law enforcement say it is very unlikely but if a cartridge does contain fentanyl, it is done by an individual dealer or person trying to experiment, and not by cartels or across a mass market.
One of the two students who overdosed in the Bellevue School District last week was revived long enough to mention to a police officer, “something vague about a vape pen, but was not entirely lucid and did not provide much more details than that,” said Bellevue police Capt. Joe Nault.
King County Department of Health said it isn’t aware of any confirmed cases of fentanyl in vape pens in the area. Any time you buy a vape other than from a dispensary you risk having something unknown in it, Epstein warns.
In search of community
Hill was the new kid when he entered eighth grade at Kellogg Middle School in the Shoreline school district. He didn’t like it. Every other kid already had friends from their earlier years in middle school.
“It was hard until it was easy,” Hill said. “All I had to do was do drugs to be real. I smoked weed to get most of my friends … I wanted to fit in.”
Smoking weed turned into drinking alcohol, which turned into doing cocaine at parties. When the pandemic hit, Hill felt even more isolated. He found people who did different drugs, and those seemed cool, too.
Students like Hill often buy pills on Snapchat or Instagram. Sometimes they’ll search for a specific account, but others often pop up as suggested accounts to follow, with different emojis in the bio to indicate different pills. They are “suggested accounts” because the accounts are already friends with lots of other students at the school, according to student interviews and experts at the DEA and the King County Department of Health.
An emoji of an outlet plug symbolizes a drug dealer; a small green plant emoji can symbolize a weed dealer. Students can pay via Cash App, Zelle and Venmo and the pills are often delivered to wherever they want them, according to student interviews.
Coquille Johnson has been a drug and alcohol counselor for 10 years and is in charge of checking in on students like Hill. She runs coping-skills groups for students who use drugs or who have family members who use drugs.
Johnson knew about fentanyl before the pandemic but just in the last year or two has seen more and more fentanyl overdoses.
The number of students at the school who are actually addicted is very low, Johnson said, but the chances of students coming across fentanyl is very high.
Hill decided to get sober when one of his school counselors at Shorecrest High School in the Shoreline district told him about resources that could help.
“I was desperate. I didn’t have friends,” Hill said. “All the people at school thought I was a tweaker [drugged out], nodding off in class, searching for drugs that aren’t there.”
He realized he didn’t have relationships either: His mom didn’t want to talk to him. He stole from his grandma. He didn’t have contact with his dad. And the friends he did have, he realized weren’t “actually there for me, they only want to use me for drugs,” Hill said.
He went to rehab for six months and returned to school to finish his senior year. Once he was sober, he was determined to bring awareness to his classmates about how bad life can get when addicted to fentanyl. He worked hard along with others from the student government to bring an assembly to the whole school.
Hill graduated last week and this fall will attend Edmonds Community College to pursue a career in school drug counseling.
“I didn’t expect my life to get this good,” Hill said. “I expected maybe like … a car. Or a driver’s license. I didn’t expect to actually have relationships.”