Gym class is an almost universal American experience, offering a reprieve from monotonous school-day tasks of writing English papers or completing math worksheets. For me, gym class promised a fun game of kickball or friendly competition in a game of capture the flag. That it could be the place for a 13-year-old boy to overdose on fentanyl is unimaginable.

On January 15th, 2022, the harrowing overdose of a young student became reality for a gym class at Hartford’s Sport and Medical Sciences Academy. Two days later, the student passed away. Police found almost 40 bags of fentanyl in different locations across the school and 100 bags of fentanyl in the 13-year-old’s bedroom. Two other young students were hospitalized due to fentanyl exposure and have since recovered.

As the news broke across the Hartford community and beyond, I found it difficult to grapple with this tragedy. How could this happen? And more importantly—how can we prevent it from happening again?

One part of the complex answer to these questions is to increase the availability of the overdose reversal drug naloxone in public spaces such as schools and libraries. The next step? Expand training on how to recognize and respond to overdoses when they occur.

Emily Blanchard

Although federal and state attempts at expanding harm reduction and treatment programs are underway, many medical and drug policy experts are concerned that the programs are being rolled out too slowly to halt the expansion of the overdose epidemic. According to these experts, it could take years to successfully implement these programs. The result will be a continuation of the already rapidly rising fatalities.

The CDC reported a 14% increase in overdose fatalities in 2020 in Connecticut, resulting in 1,374 overdose deaths overall. While the CDC has yet to complete the 2021 data for the state, fentanyl overdoses have accounted for around 85% of accidental drug intoxication deaths in Connecticut. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and is increasingly added to other drugs to enhance their addictiveness and decrease the cost of production.

Teenage overdose fatalities associated with synthetic opioid drugs, such as fentanyl, have tripled over the last two years. Youth between the ages 15 and 24 experienced the greatest increase in fatal drug overdoses from 2019 to 2020 in the U.S. (49%) according to CDC data.

Many victims are completely unaware of the presence of fentanyl until it is too late. Drugs that are viewed by teens as non-life-threatening and experimental, such as cocaine and prescription pills, are increasingly laced with fatal levels of fentanyl. Naloxone is no longer just an antidote provided for regular opioid users — it is the only defense measure protecting youth from one fatal mistake.

The DEA associates social media messaging apps such as Snapchat with expanding school-age individuals’ access to these dangerously laced drugs. Drug sales to teens on social media have become so rampant that the DEA has gone so far as to code specific emojis associated with specific drug types.

We can no longer turn a blind eye to the impact of this epidemic on our youth. Some parents may think teen overdoses are rare or do not believe the topic should be discussed in classroom settings. However, the increasing availability and usage of these drugs by school-aged individuals means that the fatal effects of the opioid epidemic could show up on your doorstep, or in your child’s gym class.

More than half of Connecticut school nurses reported in 2019 that their school did not have naloxone in their buildings. Likewise, Hartford’s Sport and Medical Sciences Academy school officials did not actively carry naloxone. It is essential to mandate naloxone in schools and institute staff training throughout the state as we face this new wave of the opioid epidemic that directly endangers our youth.

The urgency of this issue culminates at a notable time: Connecticut recently received $95 million to fund opioid treatment and prevention following a $6 billion settlement with Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma and its owner, the Sackler family. First and foremost, these new funds should be used to provide naloxone in all Connecticut public schools and to pay for training programs on its administration. Democratic State Rep. Liz Linehan of Cheshire joined Hartford city officials in petitioning for a bill to require these new policies during the current legislative session.

Would a young student still be alive if a naloxone-trained teacher had been near his gym class on January 15th? We will never know. What we do know is that we have the tools to try to prevent this from happening in any gym class ever again.

Emily Blanchard is a senior at Trinity College, currently double-majoring in Public Policy & Law and Economics.