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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.

Animas High School took different path with students and Narcan

Jo Downing, student at Animas High School, and Brooke Coffey, counselor at Axis Health System, at an opioid harm reduction event at Animas High School in February.
Photo credit: Zoe Ramsey
Jo Downing, student at Animas High School, and Brooke Coffey, counselor at Axis Health System, at an opioid harm reduction event at Animas High School in February.

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: Our reporting revealed that Animas High School has responded to Durango’s teen harm reduction movement differently than the 9R School District has. We decided these differences were worth exploring for our series. This story is not meant to be an exhaustive comparison, but to highlight a few ways in which Animas High School has engaged with the teens who are most passionate about opioid addiction issues and harm reduction.

The 2021 fatal overdose of one Durango teen prompted many in the community to wonder what could be done differently to prevent another overdose death. Teens throughout the community decided that they wanted more education and tools that would help save lives. At Durango High School some students started pushing for changes to school drug policy. They began their campaign by approaching district administrators and eventually launched a public campaign when they concluded progress was too slow. Students centered their public campaign on permission to carry Narcan – a nasal spray that is highly effective in reversing the effects of an opioid overdose.

In November 2022, the 9R school district began a careful, comprehensive review of the issue. 9R Superintendent Karen Cheser saw that the policies students were asking for had the potential to save a life. But she was concerned that there could be other potential consequences and risks. Allowing students to carry, and possibly administer Narcan during an overdose event, meant that emergency response might be in the hands of a minor. Among her many concerns, Dr. Cheser concluded there were health risks and potential legal exposure for district faculty and administrators.

Meanwhile, Animas High School seems to have engaged with students in a slightly more permissive way, and there are a few reasons that may account for this difference. For one, Animas High School is a public charter school; it operates separately from the 9-R school district.

But Animas was also the home school of the teenage boy who died of a fatal overdose in December 2021. Some of the boy’s best friends went to school with him. And his death deeply affected students at Animas, including Zoe Ramsey.

At the beginning of the school year, we did a project in humanities around social movements,” Ramsey said. “(I decided to) educate kids about the dangers of drug abuse, and everything that can happen.”

At a school exhibition, Ramsey handed out Narcan to students.

Animas let me hand out Narcan at our exhibition,” Ramsey said. “They didn't care (about distributing Narcan) until recently.”

Responding to Students While Working Closely with 9R School District

After 9R District administrators expressed public concerns about the risks and potential legal liabilities of allowing students to carry Narcan, Animas High School grew more cautious. By February of this year, when Ramsey wanted to hand out bottles of Narcan at a harm reduction training event, she says she was told not to.

According to administrators at Animas High School, it made sense to make those adjustments like these, especially on a complex issue like this one.

“Any policy decision that we make does not necessarily need to align with policy decisions that Durango 9-R makes,” said Libby Cowles, Dean of Enrollment and Community Outreach at Animas High School. “We're the same community and we serve our kids as a community. So it's important for us to discuss and partner and work together wherever possible.”

Animas High School and the Durango 9R school district have been working in a number of areas to provide resources for students to address substance abuse and addiction issues. But on the subject of Narcan specifically, Animas seems to have been a bit more lenient over the past few months.

In February, Zoe Ramsey helped organize a workshop with faculty and addiction recovery experts at the school. During the workshop, students learned about Naloxone, the active ingredient in Narcan.

The primary talking point of that event was around Naloxone, and how to access it, how to use it,” Candice Seay said. Seay is with Advocates for Recovery, an addiction support organization. She’s in recovery from addiction herself, and she helped run the workshop.

It was honestly really driven by the students, students that were close to the individual that lost his life, their experience with that has really motivated them,” she said.

Animas High School hosted an opioid harm reduction event in February.
Photo credit: Zoe Ramsey
Animas High School hosted an opioid harm reduction event in February.

At the school-sponsored event, Candice Seay demonstrated how to use Narcan in an overdose situation. Perhaps as importantly, students were able to connect with adults who understand the challenges of speaking openly about drug use and addiction.

Candice Seay was one of those adults. Chris Andrews, the program coordinator at Young People in Recover in Durango, also helped with the training. Andrews was surprised when, a few days after the training event at Animas High School, several students came to one of his weekly recovery meetings.

“There were six students that showed up to the meeting,” he said. “Most of us are in our 30s. A few people who drop in that are a bit younger. But that was the first meeting that I had some students show up and actually talk about their experience.”

In spite of the differences between how Animas High School has handled the questions around students and Narcan, school officials are navigating those differences with care. When we asked Erin Skyles, the school’s Student Support Coordinator, whether she thought students should be able to carry Narcan, her answer was neither a “yes” nor a “no”.

I want all of our youth in this whole community to have access to all of the resources and tools to keep themselves safe and alive,” she said. “If our youth are choosing to try substances, God forbid, there's fentanyl in them. I want our students to be empowered to at least have the chance to save a life potentially.”

It looks like Animas High School is moving forward in parallel with 9R School District when it comes to a policy change. Skyles told us that Animas Head of School Rebecca Ruland has recommended a policy change that students, “not be penalized for carrying Narcan on campus”. The board will likely make a decision on this recommendation at their next meeting on April 20th.

From what I have heard, specifically from board members, is that it will be adopted into policy at the next meeting,” she said. “There will not be a discussion. The discussion (has) already (happened). It will be adopted as of our next board meeting.”

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.