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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 carrying Narcan: Durango 9R weighs the risks and benefits

Vanessa Giddings, director of student support services for the 9-R district, and Kathy Morris, our director of safety and security, speak about Narcan policy at the Durango 9-R School District on Narcan on January 24.
Screenshot from Durango 9-R Youtube channel
Vanessa Giddings, director of student support services for the 9-R district, and Kathy Morris, our director of safety and security, speak about Narcan policy at the Durango 9-R School District on Narcan on January 24.

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: Until recently, what we knew about the perspective of the 9R School District came from the public record. On March 15, 9R District Superintendent Karen Cheser agreed to an interview for this series. In the interview, the Superintendent revealed new details about the district’s planning and deliberations around the policy change proposed by students.

A single teen’s fatal overdose sparked the teen harm reduction movement in Durango in 2021. Following this event, some high school students began to explore changes in school policy that would allow them to act if an overdose happened at school.

The activism among high school students emerged slowly at first, on independent and parallel tracks, in the spring of 2022. But by the fall of that year, these students had joined forces and started pushing school administrators and district board members to take action. By January 2023, they decided to go public.

"What they're telling us now is we're working on it, we're looking into it,” said Ilias Stritikus, a Durango High School Senior. “But we first brought this up with the board in September. Six months later, and we don't feel heard."

In an exclusive interview for this series, 9R School District Karen Cheser told us that she has been listening and that the dialogue with students has progressed as it should have.

“I know (students) think that this is taking a long time. But we're doing something that no one else has done,” Cheser said. “So it does take a long time. It's a very important decision. (It’s) not easy.”

On January 24th, Dr. Cheser gave a presentation at the 9R Board of Education meeting. It was the first time she addressed the public about the student campaign to carry Narcan in schools.

“This is uncharted territory,” she said. “In Colorado, this hasn't really happened. And so it was really important that we work with our attorneys and our insurance company because there are ramifications.”

On January 24, Cheser stressed her chief responsibility as superintendent would be to minimize risks and liability to the district. The risks she outlined at that meeting were numerous. Among them were several undesirable scenarios that may happen when Narcan is administered.

She said that those who receive Narcan could have allergic reactions and that some recipients can become violent and angry during withdrawal. She also pointed out that involving students in scenarios like these would significantly change district protocol.

Typically, trained faculty handle emergencies at schools. Allowing students to carry Narcan would mean that a minor could be a first responder at the scene of a medical emergency.

“It's not just about carrying it. It's really ultimately about if they have to use it,” she said that night. “Instead of a trained adult….a tremendous responsibility (to) put on a 14-year-old.”

On Wednesday, Dr. Cheser agreed to interview with us. She told us early on in that conversation that she’s concerned the community hasn’t heard the school district's perspective as clearly as it has the voices of student activists.

“The complexity of the issue has not necessarily been known by the public,” she said. “I think we realize we definitely need to get all that information out there. So it doesn't seem one-sided or that we are not listening or not supportive. So that's been frustrating.”

Legal Concerns Must Be Resolved

The district has been exploring potential solutions to the many challenges it would face in implementing the changes students have asked for. Still, legal concerns are among the most significant obstacles. Since at least last November, Dr. Cheser has consulted with attorneys and the school board to make sense of the legal landscape.

Student possession and use in schools is largely untested, she told us. But at least one element of the law was clear: Colorado statute does cover faculty and trained adults to administer Narcan in schools. 9R District schools have had Narcan on campus and have trained faculty and staff to use it since December 2021.

“CRS 20 211 19.1. That's the statute that was just passed last year by the legislature, which allows employees and their agents to be trained,” she said.

The word “agent” is an important piece of legalese in the debate over whether the law applies to students. There are questions about whether a student could act as an “agent” of a public school when administering Narcan to someone who may be overdosing. Teens activists, who have also researched the topic, told us they believe the law covers them. Dr. Cheser disagreed.

“I know, the students have an interpretation of what ‘agent’ means,” she said. “I can't really have an interpretation. I have to go with what my attorneys are saying because they're the ones who would represent us. Our attorney is saying that an ‘agent,’ according to statute, is not a student.”

Without protection for students under the law, Dr. Cheser worries about a worst-case scenario–one in which a 15-year-old uses Narcan on a fellow student who may or may not be overdosing, and an unfavorable outcome arises.

“Then the parent can sue us individually (or) as a district,” she said. “We may or may not be covered legally.”

Given the extent of legal uncertainties, it might be surprising that Dr. Cheser told us she’s not opposed to making a policy change.

“It's not that we don't want it to happen. I want to do this for kids if this helps them help others,” she said. “I just can't put the district in a place where there is legal risk without doing due diligence.”

9R Board of Education Considers New Policy

9R board members are currently reviewing a policy change that would allow “trained” students to carry and administer Narcan during school hours and on campus. The policy was first made public at a 9R Board work session on February 13.

You can read the proposed policy here. (link to pdf document of policy proposal–pdf in folder of web materials)

This new policy would place several requirements on students and their families to shield the district from liability–including a provision that students and their parents would sign a waiver.

“Parents would be signing that they accept responsibility and liability. Students would sign that they understand what this means,” she told us. “Any Narcan…used by students would have to come from a known source.”

In addition to those controls, students would require training from a third party–the district’s legal counsel has said faculty or staff cannot train students. (Dr. Cheser subsequently emailed us that the district may have found a community partner to facilitate student training in San Juan Basin Public Health.)

“There's no guarantee that's enough to stop anyone from suing,” she said. “But at least it lowers the risk.”

Upcoming Community Forum

Even as the 9R board considers whether or not it is comfortable with allowing the superintendent to make this policy change, the district is preparing to host a forum on March 27. Students, administrators, board members, and healthcare experts will discuss the risks and benefits of allowing students to carry and administer Narcan on campus at this meeting.

Dr. Cheser says the forum will allow board members one last round of input before coming to a decision.

“They have to say, ‘is the benefit, basically, of having students have Narcan on hand, does that outweigh all these other risks?’” she said. “And if they tell me, ‘yes, the risk is worth it,’ then that is the message to me to go ahead with the policy.”

After the forum, it won’t be long before the 9R board has an opportunity to make a decision. Its next scheduled meeting is the following evening – March 28 – and discussion of the matter is already on the agenda.

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.