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After losing their friend to an overdose, high schoolers in Colorado worked for change


More than 3,000 teens in the United States died from drug overdoses between the years 2020 and 2022, affecting the lives of countless family, friends and classmates. Adam Burke of member station KSUT in Colorado reports on what one group of high school students decided to do after the death of one of their friends.


ZOE RAMSEY: When was this one taken?

ADAM BURKE, BYLINE: At Animas High School in the picturesque mountain town of Durango, Niko Peterson and Zoe Ramsey are looking through photos.

PETERSON: I think...

RAMSEY: When you were going...

PETERSON: ...We were going to X block.

RAMSEY: Yeah, you guys were probably going to skate or something.

PETERSON: Skate or kickboxing.

BURKE: They're working on a two-page yearbook spread, words and images to honor their friend, Gavinn McKinney, who died during their sophomore year.

PETERSON: We're trying to find as many pictures as we can from everybody for the yearbook.

BURKE: On December 10, 2021, McKinney and a friend took pills they believed to be the narcotic Percocet. But the pills were counterfeit and laced with fentanyl. McKinney died before emergency responders could reach him. Paramedics revived the other boy with Narcan, a nasal spray that can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

RAMSEY: He was just, like, a wise soul.

BURKE: It was just nine days before McKinney's 16th birthday.

RAMSEY: I feel like he just knew something that none of us knew, and I'm never going to know what that is.

BURKE: In the past five years, the number of teen overdose deaths has risen sharply in the U.S. Joseph Friedman studies addiction and illicit drug use at UCLA.

JOSEPH FRIEDMAN: I think people don't realize just how complex and terrifying the illicit drug supply is becoming in the age of synthetics. I mean, there's this huge array of novel substances that are being synthesized, mixed in with fentanyls, in many cases sold as these preformulated counterfeit pills.

BURKE: Friedman says that while teens are unlikely to experiment with powder substances, they are more comfortable trying what they think are prescription drugs. And the swift rise in counterfeit pills has produced deadly results.

FRIEDMAN: We know that many teens that are fatally overdosing do not have an addiction or a problem with drugs. In many cases, it's just teenagers that are experimenting with counterfeit pills. They may have only experimented a handful of times when a tragedy happens.

BURKE: In this changing risk environment, public health agencies have pushed to make lifesaving tools more widely available - things like fentanyl test strips, which allow a user to test drugs before taking them, and Narcan with its active ingredient naloxone, which can reverse a fentanyl overdose.

RAMSEY: I had no idea what naloxone was. I had no idea what fentanyl testing strip was. I didn't even know how little fentanyl it could take to kill somebody until after Gavinn's death.

BURKE: Here's Animas High School senior Zoe Ramsey.

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. And that's where me and Niko's ideas kind of came in of us just being like, if the teachers, parents, administrators aren't going to be telling us about this, then we need to tell our peers, and we need to do what we can to protect them.

BURKE: Many schools stock Narcan for teachers and staff to use. But when it comes to students, there's a legal gray area, and school administrators worry about liability. So when Ramsey, Peterson, and other teens in Durango asked for permission to carry Narcan on campus, they ran into drug policies prohibiting the possession of any medication.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Chanting) Narcan...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting) Saves lives.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Chanting) Narcan...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: (Chanting) Saves lives.

BURKE: So they lobbied the school board for permission to carry and administer Narcan on school grounds. They won but didn't stop there.


PETERSON: Two years ago, on December 10, 2021, I lost my best friend to an overdose involving a laced drug with fentanyl.

BURKE: By February, Niko Peterson and other teens were testifying at a legislative hearing in the state capital.


PETERSON: It was his first time trying a pill, and he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

BURKE: At the hearing, skeptical state legislators like Anthony Hartsook wondered whether students should be empowered to act as first responders in school.


ANTHONY HARTSOOK: My son right now in high school is 14. I don't know that he can evaluate whether somebody's having an allergic reaction, a medical reaction, a drug reaction.

BURKE: Here's Zoe Ramsey.

RAMSEY: It felt really scary.


HARTSOOK: And we are now asking kids to assume...

RAMSEY: I was worried that, like, we wouldn't be able to convince them, or I was worried that we wouldn't be able to answer the questions, or I wouldn't, like, impress them enough.


HARTSOOK: Professionals go through extensive training, and...

RAMSEY: I've spent more time working on this than my college applications, and I just wanted all my hard work to pay off.


UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR: With 50 aye, 12 no...

BURKE: The hard work did pay off.


UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR: ...House Bill 1003 is adopted.


BURKE: And now, students across Colorado have the right to carry and administer Narcan in public and charter schools.

RAMSEY: Seeing it actually pass and seeing people agree with it...

PETERSON: We made it happen.

RAMSEY: ...It was like a deep breath, a breath of fresh air.

BURKE: After changing school policy and helping rewrite state law, it was time to graduate high school. As Ramsey and Peterson wrap up senior projects and plan a class camping trip, each milestone is another reminder of their friend's absence.

PETERSON: I've been struggling with, like, trying to still find the happiness in things, even though he's not doing them with me.

RAMSEY: And, like, I just finished a 32-page thesis on what the most effective harm-reduction educational strategies are. And I wonder what - like, I wonder what Gavinn would have written about. Like, would it have been quantum computing? Would it have been, like - I don't - we have no idea. Like, we have no idea.

BURKE: On May 24, Animas High School left an empty seat at its graduation ceremony to remember Gavinn McKinney.

RAMSEY: Because, like, he's not going to be able to walk with us, but he would have graduated with us. Like, he would have graduated with us.

BURKE: For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke in Durango, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adam Burke
[Copyright 2024 Four Corners Public Radio]