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They launched a campaign to protect teens from opioids. Now, it’s time to graduate from high school

Niko Peterson and Zoe Ramsey worked to change local school policy and Colorado law after losing a friend to opioids.
Adam Burke/KSUT
Niko Peterson and Zoe Ramsey worked to change local school policy and Colorado law after losing a friend to opioids.

KSUT reporter Clark Adomaitis and independent producer Adam Burke have been following the issue of Narcan in school. Explore their stories on the topic.

Recently, in an empty classroom at Animas High School, Zoe Ramsey and Niko Peterson were sorting through photos on a laptop.

In one photo, Peterson stares at the camera wearing a knit cap and making a goofy face. Behind him, another boy with a tousled puff of dark hair stands with his chin on Peterson’s head. This boy's face is sober and more serious.

“It represents our friendship pretty well, I think,” said Peterson. “I would have never imagined that this would be an in-memoriam type of picture, but it’s a pretty good one.”

Recently, Peterson and Ramsey have been working on a two-page yearbook spread to honor their friend Gavinn McKinney, who died two years ago, just nine days before his 16th birthday, when the 3 were sophomores.

“He was just like a wise soul,” Ramsey said. “I feel like he just knew something that none of us knew. And I’m never going to know what that is.”

On the evening of Friday, December 10, 2021, McKinney and a friend took medication they believed to be the narcotic Percocet. But the pills were counterfeit and laced with Fentanyl.

After family members found the teens, and called 911, paramedics saved the other boy’s life with Narcan, a nasal spray that can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. McKinney died before anyone could reach him.

By the following Monday, students and staff at Animas High School were overwhelmed.

“We ended up just pulling the 10th graders together that morning,” said Lori Fisher, a humanities teacher at the school. “We had grief counselors on hand, and then we had these three rooms of kids just crying and remembering and dealing with their grief.”

Gavinn McKinney and Zoe Ramsey became close friends in their 10th grade year at Animas High School.
courtesy of Zoe Ramsey
Gavinn McKinney and Zoe Ramsey became close friends in their 10th grade year at Animas High School.

Among those closest to McKinney, Zoe Ramsey and Niko Peterson turned their grief into a resolve to take action.

“They were adamant from the very beginning that they wanted his death to mean something,” said Fisher. “It took them a while to figure out exactly what that looked like and what that meant for them. When they came upon this idea of harm reduction, Zoe was like, ‘This is it, this is what we need to be doing, this is where we need to be going.’”

Harm reduction is a system of practical strategies aimed at minimizing the harmful consequences associated with drug use. As Ramsey and Peterson read up on harm reduction, they learned about Narcan (active ingredient, Naloxone) and about Fentanyl test strips, which allow a drug user to detect lethal opioids.

“I didn't even know how little Fentanyl it could take to kill somebody until after Gavinn's death,” said Ramsey. “Then I realized after the fact that this could have been prevented, and nobody was teaching us about what could have been done instead…That’s when Niko (and I decided), ‘‘If the teachers, parents, and administrators aren’t telling us about this, then we need to tell our peers, and we need to do what we can to protect them.’”

Ramsey and Peterson started teaching other teens about harm reduction. They joined up with other concerned teens to lobby the school district in Durango for a policy change so that students could carry and administer Narcan on campus. Following that successful campaign, they worked with Colorado state representative Barbara McLachlan on a bill to give that same right to students across the state.

By February, they were testifying at a Colorado House of Representatives committee hearing. During that testimony, skeptical legislators challenged the idea that students were emotionally prepared to act as first responders in school.

“I was worried we wouldn’t be able to convince them,” Ramsey recalled. “I spent more time on this than my college applications, and I just wanted all my hard work to pay off.”

The hard work paid off near the end of April when Colorado’s lieutenant governor signed the bill into law.

In the final days before graduation, Ramsey and Peterson were wrapping up senior projects and planning a class camping trip. Each milestone is another reminder of their friend’s absence.

“We’re grieving still,” said Peterson. “I’ve been struggling with trying to still find the happiness in things…even though he’s not doing them with me.”

“I just finished a 32-page thesis on what the most effective harm-reduction educational strategies are,” said Ramsey. “I wonder what Gavinn would have written about? Would it have been quantum computing? We have no idea. We have no idea.”

Animas High School will leave a seat empty at its graduation ceremony to remember Gavinn McKinney.

“He’s not going to be able to walk with us,” said Ramsey, her voice breaking. “But he would have graduated with us. Yeah. He would have graduated with us.”

Adam Burke
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.