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News / Northwest

Washington House passes fentanyl education bill

By Claire Bryan, The Seattle Times
Published: February 13, 2024, 10:27am

Public schools in Washington may soon be required to teach about the dangers of the deadly drug fentanyl, as a bill that passed out of the House unanimously on Friday heads to the Senate.

House Bill 1956 would require schools to provide education about fentanyl and other opioids in health classes to as many seventh and ninth grade students as possible during the remainder of the 2024-25 school year after materials are updated, and annually to seventh and ninth graders every year thereafter.

The bill will be heard in the Senate on Thursday. If it passes and is signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, it would go into effect immediately and materials would need to be updated for use by Dec. 1.

The number of people under the age of 24 in Washington who have died because of an overdose has increased sixfold since 2017, with a total of more than 190 deaths in 2022. More than 90% of those deaths were from fentanyl overdoses, according to Inslee’s office.

In King County last year, 16 people under the age of 20 died from fentanyl overdoses. This year so far, there have been two deaths involving fentanyl among those under 20, according to the King County Department of Health. These counts do not include young people who may have overdosed outside of the county and died in King County.

“Our youth have no idea what it is they are taking,” said Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, a co-sponsor of the bill. “They have no idea that inadvertently they’re going to pick up a pill that could have something else when they think it is Percocet or Adderall.”

Leavitt said she started learning about how inconsistent drug education is in Washington schools after one of her constituent’s 16-year-old sons overdosed on fentanyl when meaning to use marijuana.

“I heard these stories of parents who lost their child [to fentanyl] … there’s a theme in their commentary about ‘I didn’t know’ and ‘I wish I had known,’ “ Leavitt said. “It became really clear that we have to talk about open fentanyl use with our youth.”

The bill would require the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to work with the state Department of Health to provide schools with educational materials about the risks of using fentanyl and other opioids, and would adjust health education learning standards to include knowledge about fentanyl, opioids and other life-threatening drugs by Dec. 1. The bill also tasks OSPI and other agencies with reviewing substance use prevention educational material and resources at least once every year to make sure the material contains the most current information.

Because the health education learning standards address prevention of harmful substances and healthy decision-making for all students, there is a chance that the topic of fentanyl will come up for other grades beyond seventh and ninth, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for OSPI.

The bill would also encourage schools to work with substance use prevention specialists at the state’s nine Educational Service Districts, regional agencies that help school districts plan collectively.

Because fentanyl education efforts vary widely from district to district, schools across the state will have to adapt to different degrees.

“It is all over the map,” said Rep. Dan Griffey, R-Allyn, another co-sponsor of the bill. Griffey’s district covers the southeastern portion of the Olympic Peninsula and parts of south Olympia, and he and the other sponsors are hoping for a consistent message across all districts.

“We need a Nancy Reagan figure right now on fentanyl,” said Griffey, referring to the former first lady, whose drug-prevention campaign was one of her signature efforts during her years in the White House. “We need someone who is in your mind’s eye, who you can hear when you are reaching out to grab that pill. What we get with a bill like this is a consistent narrative.”

Some districts, like Seattle Public Schools, have already started teaching mandatory substance use education, including a discussion of fentanyl in seventh and ninth grade. SPS has also used campaigns like the Drug Enforcement Administration’s One Pill Can Kill and Laced & Lethal in some school assemblies.

SPS also has prevention and intervention specialists at all 12 middle schools and two high schools.

Other districts, like Issaquah, teach health once during high school but not necessarily in ninth grade. During that health class, students are taught about drugs as a category, but fentanyl isn’t specifically discussed. However, the district also partnered with the DEA to offer assemblies and panels about the dangers of fentanyl for most middle and high school students.

Issaquah doesn’t employ abuse intervention specialists, but the district does have mental health counselors who are also licensed clinical social workers. Those counselors are able to support students with substance use issues.

The Lake Washington School District provides substance use education to seventh and ninth graders but doesn’t include fentanyl in the curriculum at this time. The curriculum team will soon evaluate information about fentanyl if the bill passes, a district spokesperson said.

The Pomeroy School District, located in the southeast part of the state, does not have a class that specifically teaches about fentanyl, but the district has an abuse intervention specialist.

The Cascade School District, just outside of Leavenworth, is teaching substance use education.

“I think schools are probably already providing education to prevent fentanyl and other opioid use because we really don’t want our students to be negatively impacted or physically harmed,” wrote Cascade Superintendent Tracey Edou in an email. “That said, we can always improve.”

Griffey called fentanyl “a real substance that can kill on the first pill.”

“We have to break any kind of idea that it is safe to share any of the pills that are prescribed individually,” he said. “They are all prescribed for a reason, they are followed under the supervision of a doctor and sharing any kind of pill is dangerous.”

Approximately $3.7 million per year is estimated to be used to implement the bill, Leavitt said. Most of that amount would be for the Department of Health, and just over $300,000 per year would be for OSPI.

“[School districts] all care about it deeply,” said Leavitt, the Democratic sponsor of the bill. “They don’t want to lose students to fentanyl. They don’t want to lose one student to anything. But I do believe we need a system in place where every school district and every student in every school is learning about the dangers of fentanyl.”

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Previously, the only requirement of school districts was a law, signed by 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.

There is a bill in the Senate currently that would require all high schools, not just large schools, to have opioid overdose medication on hand.

“I feel an intense sense of urgency about this issue,” Leavitt said. “We’ve lost their souls because we aren’t doing enough to prevent it and [are] not doing enough to educate our youth and families.”

“This is an emergency and we cannot wait any longer,” Griffey said.

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