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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.

Students pushed 9R district administrators for months before public Narcan campaign

High School students and community members rally at the 9-R Board meeting on Tuesday, January 24. Ilias Stritikus led the rally.
Clark Adomaitis / KSUT
High School students and community members rally at the 9-R Board meeting on Tuesday, January 24. Ilias Stritikus led the rally.

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: When this story was published, the 9R School District declined requests for an interview with Superintendent Karen Cheser. We reported the story through interviews with student leaders and a review of email correspondence between students and Cheser. The superintendent has since agreed to an interview, and portions of it will be included in part three of the series.

In the weeks and months that followed, one fatal overdose of an Animas High School student on December 10, 2021, weighed heavily on the minds of many high school students in Durango.

According to Ilias Stritikus, who was a Junior at Durango High School, conversations about the overdose, and the risks of opioids, were everywhere.

“They were in the hall, in class, outside of school at lacrosse practice, wherever we were,” he said.

In early March, Durango High School held Student Council elections.

“I'd never thought about running for student council. It’s never been something I was interested in,” Stritikus said. But as the elections drew closer, he realized that getting elected was an opportunity to push for change. “This is a position I can use to make an impact in my school and in my community.”

He focused his campaign message on the importance of minimizing negative consequences to drug users–a strategy known as, “harm reduction”.

“I knew there was a want and a need within the community, but I didn't know how popular harm reduction was with the student body,” he said. “And I remember the moment I brought it up, it was just applause and cheers.”

Backed by student votes, Ilias Stritikus was determined to give students more at school to minimize the likelihood of overdoses. But he began by trying to work with the Durango High School administration.

Within days of being elected he emailed Principal Jonathan Hoerl about making fentanyl test strips available to students at school–something which would allow teens to verify whether fentanyl was present in other drugs they might be taking.

Stritikus says he saw the principal frequently in the halls and after school. They had many casual, and inconclusive, conversations about the policy changes Stritikus was pushing for.

“I'd say, ‘hey, any update on fentanyl test strips?’ and usually it would be, ‘oh, we're working on it. And we're looking into it.’” Strikus recalled. “I came to their conclusion that this wasn't necessarily their decision to make.”

During the period Stritkus was pushing for fentanyl test strips, another Durango High School student, Maddy LeSage, started a club in the Spring of 2022 to educate students about Narcan–an opioid-reversal drug.

“We created a PowerPoint, we (did) a Narcan training. We've done a fentanyl education,” LeSage said. “We have this little (fake bottle of) Narcan, because we can't have it on school grounds.”

Stritikus and LeSage eventually met and joined forces.

“Leo actually came in after one of my trainings,” LeSage said. “And he was like, I see that you're trying to do the same thing as me. Let's work together.”

A Push To Change 9R Drug Policy

By September of 2022, Stritikus and LeSage were frustrated by the lack of progress they were making with administrators. They wanted Narcan available in school, and they wanted students to have the right to carry it. They’d also concluded that the faculty they’d been talking with didn’t have the power to make the changes they were looking for.

After communicating with a school board member, they emailed 9R District Superintendent Karen Cheser.

“We heard back from her on November 16th,” said Stritikus. “She said, ‘Sorry, we've been discussing this with our attorney’. And she said that they believe that the risks of students carrying Narcan did not outweigh the benefits. So she gave us a no. A pretty explicit no.”

Students emailed the Superintendent again, asking for a face to face meeting. On December 9, 2022, at the Durango High School Library, Superintendent Karen Cheser, Durango High School Principal Jonathan Hoerl, and other school district administrators sat down with three students.

Maddy LeSage remembered the meeting as respectful.

“I think that they listened to us,” she said. “Dr. Cheser…asked us, so what are you guys trying to do? (Ilias) named the policy that explains that we can't carry anything from Advil to Tylenol to Narcan on campus, and how we want that policy to be changed. She…told us that she would look into this.”

Ilias Stritikus had a different reaction to the meeting.

“It got quite testy at points. They were quite dismissive. It was really disappointing,” he said. “It was also obvious that they, unfortunately, had fallen victim to some Narcan misinformation or hadn't done sufficient research. I remember sitting there and thinking, gosh, you know, we're a bunch of high schoolers, and this really shouldn't be our job.”

Stritikus was surprised by some of the concerns the Superintendent expressed at the meeting.

“Dr. Cheser (said) she was really worried that some students might give it to students who don't need it, and that can have bad effects,” he said. “She kept returning to that point, and we kept having to say, ‘hey, we've got 20 studies on our side that show that Narcan has zero effect on you if you don't have opiates in your body.’”

After months of research, Ilias Stritikus found some of the Superintendent’s hypothetical questions frustrating.

“‘Wouldn't this just stop kids from getting the help they need?’” he recalled the Superintendent asking. “We were sitting there, trying to hammer home the point that Narcan saves lives and is proven to be effective.”

Stritikus repeatedly characterized the Superintendent’s concerns as “misinformed”.

“‘Oh, well, you could throw up,’ or ‘Oh, you could get disorientation’”, he remembers the Superintendent saying. “And we kept having to counter with, ‘but the alternative is (an overdosing student) dying of respiratory failure.’”

According to the students, two other district directors were present at the meeting–Vanessa Giddings, Director of Student Support Services, and Cathy Morris, Director of Safety and Security. Maddy LeSage said the two directors as were encouraging.

“They were really open to it and really wanted us to work on this,” Le Sage said. “One of them told us to go to the state, you know, go through the legislators, which, with me and (Ilias) being seniors, there's just not enough time for that. We graduate in a couple of months.”

Taking The Fight Public

Following the meeting with School District Administrators, the student waited again for some kind of action to be taken. Realistically, the last weeks of December, 2022, were an unlikely time for administrators to make policy changes. But to students who had been pushing for policy changes since the previous Spring, it seemed like more unnecessary delay. By mid-January, they hadn’t received any communication from school district administrators.

“(Ilias) and I decided that we needed to take things a little bit further,” LeSage said.

“A month later we're sitting there, and we're seeing this just lack of movement,” Stritikus said. “And so we decided to go to the board, because there was nothing else we could do.”

On January 19th, students received an email response from Superintendent Karen Cheser, outlining the reasons why the district was still reluctant to grant students permission to carry Narcan in school.

On January 24th, students demonstrated and gave public testimony at the 9R School District Board meeting. On February 28th, students rallied again at another board meeting.

“I think we're going to continue going to the school board meetings until we get an answer and get what we want,” said Maddy LeSage

In January, 2022, they were teenagers mourning the loss of a high school teen in Durango. One year later, they became activists, and they found their voices.

For more information about this series, click here.

Clark Adomaitis is a Durango transplant from New York City. He is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where he focused on reporting and producing for radio and podcasts. He reported sound-rich stories on the state of recycling and compost in NYC.