Oregon Teen Drug-Related Deaths are Increasing Faster than Anywhere Else in the Nation
Thursday, April 20, 2023
Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Representatives Suzanne Bonamici, Lori Chavez-Deremer, Earl Blumenauer, Andrea Salinas, and Val Hoyle are raising concerns with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) that Oregon teens are dying of drug-related causes faster than any other state, and the lawmakers are pushing for action. The Oregon delegation members are urging the Department to work with school districts to combat the opioid crisis and substance misuse in schools.
The rate of Oregon teenagers dying due to drug-related causes is growing faster than in any other state. Adolescent drug overdose deaths have more than doubled nationwide since 2019 and more than tripled in Oregon in the same time period. This is largely due to the proliferation of illicitly manufactured fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“If we are truly committed to ending the opioid crisis, then we must ensure that our students, as well as their parents and teachers, are equipped with all of the resources they need, including access to Naloxone and successful drug-prevention education programs,” the members wrote in a letter sent today to Secretary Cardona. “In pursuit of combatting and eventually ending the opioid crisis, we believe that ED can play an increasingly important role in the education of students, parents, and teachers as well as in the delivery of drug-resistance education programs.”
In the letter, they ask the Education Department to provide an update on their efforts to share best practices with school districts. The lawmakers highlight Beaverton School District’s “Fake and Fatal” campaign, which focuses on providing resources for students, parents, and teachers on the dangers of synthetic opioids, as well as key contacts and hotlines should a student ingest these drugs. The district has also adopted a non-punitive approach to students with substance use issues, instead providing specialists and social workers to each campus to help students and families find the help they deserve.
“School districts can no longer pretend that fake pills made from potentially deadly fentanyl are not a threat to their students,” said Shellie Bailey-Shah, Public Communications Officer for the Beaverton School District. “Fentanyl poisonings are a reality across the country. As educators, we have a responsibility to inform our students, parents and staff about the dangers. I implore school districts to be proactive and not wait until their communities suffer a student death that could have been prevented through education.”
“There has been a seismic shift in the drug landscape in the past several years. Potent synthetics, easily and cheaply produced and distributed, are the ideal raw material for drug traffickers, so they have flooded the streets. This trend, in tandem with the deceptive marketing of fake pills as legitimate medicines, makes the street drug supply unpredictable and extremely risky. Young Americans are dying in record numbers in this environment, largely from a lack of information. We can and must address the knowledge gap among teens and young adults that puts them at risk of consuming illicit fentanyl unknowingly. We need to install updated drug education programs in our schools as part of a multipronged effort to reduce drug harms. We encourage Congress to provide funding for innovative drug education programs that reach students where they are, in relevant and resonant ways, with the goal of empowering our youth to avoid harms and develop healthy, sustainable coping skills,” said Ed Ternan, President, Song for Charlie.
“The poisoning and overdose crisis is a complex issue with many different drivers and potential solutions discussed and debated. The drug landscape has drastically changed in a short amount of time, and will continue to, due to the prevalence of synthetics and the widespread counterfeiting, contamination, and deception occurring today. At the same time, in Oregon and nationally, we seem to have lost our commitment and focus on primary prevention of harmful substance use for our youth. Simple awareness programs, done broadly and repeatedly in our schools either as stand-alone efforts or integrated with existing prevention programs will go a long way towards mitigating the current harms we’re seeing where the first time a teenager experiments with what they think is a legit pill could be the last decision they ever make. We lost our 18 year old son to this deadly and hidden threat. Had we and he known about it, there’s a good chance he never would have made that choice. We don’t defend his choice; it wasn’t a good one. But kids need good information to make good decisions. And when they make a mistake, they should be able to learn from it. With fentanyl, there’s no time for intervention or learning. Therefore, we are grateful to Sen. Merkley’s office and the Oregon Delegation for appreciating the past efforts of the Dept of Education, and inquiring about what help is needed to do more in this area. Fighting the threat of illicit fentanyl requires an all hands on deck effort. Schools can and should play an important role in this,” said Jon Epstein, Board Member, Song for Charlie.
“The introduction of fentanyl into the street drug supply has been the most dramatic shift in the drug market in our nation’s history. While Monitoring the Future reports that teen illicit drug use has been trending down and is at its lowest in 20 years, since 2020 there has been a dramatic increase in teen drug deaths, primarily due to fentanyl. Schools in every state are still grappling with understanding this crisis and how to best protect our nation’s youth. Synthetic drugs being delivered on social media in the form of fake pills are a dramatic change in the drug landscape that will require updates to the drug education currently being used in every district. The dynamic nature of the current drug supply makes it especially challenging for educators to find current and accurate resources. Schools still recovering from the impacts of COVID are now faced with another major challenge, finding ways to protect their students from deadly fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. Schools don’t typically rely on resources provided by the U.S. Department of Education, but these are unprecedented times and kids are dying every day. We need to think differently, engage all available resources, and be open to make dramatic changes and in order to tackle this new phase of the opioid epidemic, and I am grateful Sen. Merkley’s office and the Oregon Delegation are asking how U.S. Department of Education can support the schools in their effort to protect our nation’s youth, and what resources they need to do so,” said Jennifer Epstein, Director of Outreach and Education, Song for Charlie.
Full text of the letter can be found here and follows below:
Dear Secretary Cardona,
We write today to express our support for the recent efforts that the Department of Education (ED) has taken to combat the opioid crisis and substance misuse in our nation’s schools. The Department’s two-pronged approach of education and prevention is an integral part of addressing, and eventually solving, the opioid epidemic that continues to plague communities and families across the United States.
While the ongoing efforts at ED are commendable, we remain deeply concerned with the unmitigated growth of opioid-related overdoses amongst teens. Since 2019, we have seen adolescent drug overdose deaths more than double, due largely to the proliferation of illicitly manufactured fentanyl. This issue is especially acutely felt in Oregon, where drug-related deaths among teens are increasing faster than anywhere else in the nation. As the widespread availability of counterfeit pills and their availability through commonly accessed social media platforms continue, there remains an unmet need to ensure students, parents, and teachers have access to the resources that will help prevent these tragic deaths.
We are aware that many effective drug-use prevention exist, however, our concern remains that we are not reaching all of our students with this life-saving information. If we are truly committed to ending the opioid crisis, then we must ensure that our students, as well as their parents and teachers, are equipped with all of the resources they need, including access to Naloxone and successful drug-prevention education programs.
In pursuit of combatting and eventually ending the opioid crisis, we believe that ED can play an increasingly important role in the education of students, parents, and teachers as well as in the delivery of drug-resistance education programs. To that end, we ask:
- Can ED provide an update as to their efforts to share best practices with school districts, including information about what efforts have been most successful and where there are opportunities for improvement?
- What additional resources, if any, does ED require from Congress to better address concerns with drug use and drug overdoses amongst adolescents?
More concerning than our schools’ inability to react effectively to the opioid crisis, is the underutilization of drug-use prevention programs. According to a study conducted by the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, over twenty-five percent of students aged twelve to seventeen reported not having experienced drug or alcohol use prevention messages while at school.
As an example for how we think ED could help address this issue, we would like to highlight the “Fake and Fatal” campaign launched in the Beaverton School District in Oregon. The campaign focuses on providing resources for students, parents, and teachers on the dangers of synthetic opioids as well as key contacts and hotlines should a student ingest these drugs. The district has also adopted a non-punitive approach to students with substance use issues, instead providing specialists and social workers to each campus to help students and families find the help they deserve. It has been a success in our state and could be a life-saving example for other school districts across the country.
We value ED’s commitment and partnership in combatting the opioid epidemic and welcome the opportunity to work with the agency to continue these efforts.
 “Drug Overdose Deaths Among Persons Aged 10-19 Years – United States, July 2019-December 2021,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (2022).
 “State Inaction Left Oregon Teens Vulnerable to Fentanyl’s Lethal Spread,” The Lund Report, (2023).
 “What Educators Can Do to Help Prevent Underage Drinking and Other Drug Use,” Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, (2018)