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The overdose of one Durango high school student in 2021 sparked an interest in harm reduction tools among teens in the community. Students educated themselves and began pushing the school district for changes in school drug policy. In January 2023, teen activists launched a public campaign in Durango.

One overdose turned Durango teens into activists

Niko Peterson participated in the rally at 9-R School Board meeting on Tuesday, February 28.
Clark Adomaitis / KSUT/KSJD
Niko Peterson participated in the rally at 9-R School Board meeting on Tuesday, February 28.

This story is part of a series produced by Voices From The Edge of the Colorado Plateau—a collaborative news initiative from KSUT Public Radio in Ignacio, CO, and KSJD Community Radio in Cortez, CO.

Editor’s Note: Because it was an important turning point for Durango teens, we are publishing an account of an opioid overdose involving two High School students. We are withholding the names of these and other teenagers, out of respect for their families.

When high school students demonstrated at Durango’s 9R School Board meeting on January 24th of this year, the burst of activism surprised some community members. Why were these high school students suddenly concerned about the risks of opioids? Why were they pushing for permission to carry Narcan in school? Where did this movement come from?

Colorado’s statistics on opioid-related overdose deaths didn’t provide any answers to those questions. Overdose deaths in La Plata County are rare; among teens overdose deaths appeared non-existent, at least when reviewing statewide data sets. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, La Plata County didn’t have a single opioid overdose death of a teen in 2020 and 2021.

Chalk it up to an inaccuracy of statistical record-keeping. In Colorado’s age-bracketed data set that tracks opioid-related deaths for every county in the state, a “zero” actually means, “less than 3”. In other words, one death, or two deaths, in any age bracket, are counted as zero.

But what the state counts as, “none”, is most definitely “one”, in the hearts and minds of Durango High School students.

One fatal opioid overdose in La Plata County in 2021 deeply affected teens here.

“It was a reckoning moment for a lot of people in our community,” Durango High School Senior Ilias Stritikus said. “A lot of us, students included, were kind of unaware of how these events happen. It’s difficult for a community to go through that.”

The Events of December 10, 2021

In 2021, December 10th came on a Friday. That evening a teenage birthday party was underway in Edgemont Highlands, a suburban development on the edge of Durango.

According to the teens we spoke with, there were no adults present at this party. The partygoers were texting other friends who weren’t present. As the text conversations progressed, one of the partygoers announced, on a text chain, that they had found some pills.

“They found the pills in an abandoned car, I believe,” said Zoe Ramsey, currently a junior at Animas High School. “And they were laced with Fentanyl. And they thought they didn't know what it was.”

Zoe Ramsey was friendly with the teens at the party. While she wasn’t at the party herself, she’s seen all of the texts about the pills that were sent that night.

“They texted all of our friends, like, ‘Hey, do you want to buy pills? You want to buy pills?’ And everyone's like, ‘no,’” she said.

Not everyone declined the invitation to buy pills. Across the street from the house where the party was underway, two teenage boys were hanging together in a parent’s basement. They were also on the text chain.

Niko Peterson, currently a junior at Animas High School, was close to the boys in the basement. He actually passed up an opportunity to hang with them that evening.

“I decided that I didn't want to go over there because I just didn't have a good feeling in my stomach about it,” Peterson said. “I was supposed to be there. I actually ditched them for someone else. I was hanging out with someone else.”

The boys in the basement crossed the street to buy the pills. According to Zoe Ramsey, the person selling the pills and the boys who bought them were longtime friends.

“So they thought it was safe, because they knew this person for their entire lives,” she said. “They thought it would be safe to get (the pills) from him.”

Then the two boys returned to the basement.

“They took the pills. They were starting to feel the effects,” Niko Peterson said. “They started to overdose. And (name withheld) went to the bathroom, passed out and stopped breathing and then choked on his own vomit.”

According to Niko Peterson’s account of events, one boy was in the bathroom, the other boy was in a bedroom. He told us that the mother and brother of one of the boys discovered them, and tried to resuscitate them. Soon Emergency Medical Technicians were there as well, and were able to reverse the overdose effects on one of the boys. The other boy could not be resuscitated.

“I would have been there and I am CPR trained and lifeguard certified,” Peterson said. “So I would have had to try to save their lives, which is scary to me. But it also feels like I could have done something.”

Overwhelming Grief

The next morning, Niko Peterson was puzzled why his two friends weren’t responding to his text messages. They were normally quick to reply.

“So I'm calling around and then (some other friends) come and pick me up. They're like ‘(name withheld) overdosed!’ Like (name withheld) died last night!’” Peterson said. “I was in shock. We got in the car, and everyone went over to our friend’s (name withheld) house.”

Some two dozen Animas High School students gathered at one friends’ house to grieve. They were joined by counselors and administrators from Animas high school.

The grief was overwhelming. One friend was having suicidal thoughts and checked himself into a hospital.

“We had our teachers with us the whole time,” Peterson said. “It was actually beautiful to see how much they really care about us. They were coming to check on us like at our house at our friend's house and sit with us and make sure we were okay.”

In the days that followed, teenagers in Durango mourned the loss of their friend. Some attended the boy’s funeral.

The impersonal statistics of the opioid epidemic had become real.

“I knew a couple friends who were using (drugs) before (name withheld) died,” Zoe Ramsey said. “Then he passed away. I think it woke everybody up and made everyone realize that we truly have no idea what drugs we're taking in this area.”

“It hit me really hard, because I was also supposed to be there,” Niko Peterson said. “Something would have happened to me, which is scary. No one expects for that to happen overnight, and no one expects to, for that to happen so close to them. So when it does, it really opens your eyes.

One friend was dead; the other had been resuscitated by a nasal spray called Narcan. For many teens, including Zoe Ramsey, the lesson was clear.

“(Name withheld) got very, very close (to dying),” she said. But he’s, “...alive because of Narcan and that's why I think it's such a big solution because it literally saved our friend's life.”

For more information about this series, click here.

Clark Adomaitis is a shared radio reporter for KSUT in Ignacio, CO, and KSJD in Cortez, CO for the Voices from the Edge of the Colorado Plateau project.