An Opioid Crisis Hits Home

When two 13-year-olds die from use of a synthetic drug, the superintendent becomes a public voice for unnerved parents and educators
BY EMBER CONLEY/School Administrator, August 2017

Park City, Utah, Superintendent Ember Conley fielded questions, alongside the city’s police chief, on Sept. 12, 2016, about the deaths of two Treasure Mountain Junior High School students.
Photo © Nan Chalat Noaker, The Park Record, Park City, Utah
Two young students were gone from this world in a span of two days. The cause? Pink.

What’s the connection between a color associated with Disney princesses and the deaths of two beloved boys, both 13 and best friends?

Pink, as I and others in my community have learned, is a powerful, new synthetic drug available legally on the Internet in a matter of two short keyboard clicks.

And so, this sad story begins.

A Tragedy Unfolds
At times, it is hard to separate the lines between my role as a school leader and my role as a parent. I often find what I learn as a parent helps me be a better superintendent and vice versa. The experience of dealing with two young deaths exemplifies the blurred lines of parenting and educational leadership.

It was a Sunday afternoon in September 2016 in Park City, Utah, where I lead a school district with 4,800 students. I received a text message from a parent, a friend of our family, that possibly a student had passed away that morning at his home. When I reached out to our police department, it was confirmed. We did have a student death.

Having worked with school-age children for 26 years, the past dozen years as an administrator, I have addressed my share of tragedy. I followed our protocol by notifying the principal of our junior high school followed by our intervention counselor to start the crisis plan. By the time school opened on Monday morning, we had counselors on site from other schools, teachers had been informed through the emergency calling tree, and we had a list of students whom we were watching closely because of their friendship with the deceased child.

As we used our knowledge of being a trauma-informed district, we also knew that situations such as this can trigger students who have had trauma in their early lives. We worked with our school counselors to be extra attentive to our fragile students. By the end of the day Monday, we had debriefed and continued to check in with the close friends of the victim and their families.

That same day, our police department released a public service announcement informing the public of a new substance that had hit the drug market in Utah. It was called “pink,” or U-47700 using the formal identification of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Pink had been linked at the time to two recent deaths in other parts of Utah and was known to be highly toxic, a synthetic opioid, and available for purchase over the Internet from labs in China.

Although I consider myself a seasoned administrator, this was the first I had heard of this substance. I had no idea how easy it was to order. In fact, law enforcement showed me, with two easy clicks in my web browser, how to access several options for buying this substance. My search easily bypassed our school web filters, which I had considered to be the iron walls of Internet safety. Even more shocking was the price. For $80, I could purchase an amount that could be lethal — twice as potent as heroin.

Mobilizing Experts
The following morning, on my way to work, I received the call that I now know has changed my life forever. It was the Park City fire chief telling me that emergency responders were at the home of another student found unconscious and the prognosis was grim. I immediately contacted my assistant superintendent followed by my crisis counselor and the principal. I knew we had only limited time to enact a safety and crisis plan. In the world of social media, it would be a matter of minutes before students were talking.

In the amount of time it took to drive to the school, I arranged a meeting with our district’s public relations specialist and a representative from local law enforcement. With confirmation that a second 13-year-old boy had died that morning, we recognized we had a much bigger situation.

While we could not point then to suicide or drug overdose for the deaths of the two 8th graders, we knew we were facing a crisis of magnitude. Not only were we suffering from the loss of two students who had been in our school system since elementary school, we had teachers, staff members and siblings feeling tremendous pain. We called our state suicide expert, and she and her team began consulting with us by phone as they traveled to our community. She said we had to treat the tragedies delicately to prevent a contagion effect and that we must create a web of all students who could be affected.

In minutes, we had a room of counselors, administrators and law enforcement sharing names of concerned students. We asked another team to work on the plan for the moment when students would learn of the second student’s death. We had an additional team working on communication to staff across the district and the best approach for sharing the news with the junior high school specifically. Another team cooperated with law enforcement on the investigation.

All this was unfolding while we prepared for the worst — the loss of another beloved child. How can we keep our students safe? Those minutes of planning—the struggle to beat the social media clock — were intense. Those hours of crisis training were being put to the test in a few short minutes.

As children became aware of the news, a cloud of grief settled over their school. Parents arrived to pick up their children. Our staff kept working, putting plans into place for our most acutely affected. At this point, I realized we needed to use all of our resources to help parents keep our students safe at home, share with the community what we were learning and take extra measures within our school walls to increase the level of safety. We conducted locker and car searches, carried out by local law enforcement. We asked parents to be vigilant by reviewing contents of students’ backpacks. (See related story.)

Details Emerge
By talking with students and monitoring their social media chatter, we were learning that illegal substances apparently were involved in the deaths of the two boys, considered best friends. Most shocking was the depth of information the students were now providing, information they had not previously shared with a trusted adult.

As a former high school principal, I always could count on one thing: Young adolescents talk non-stop, and nothing remains a secret. But this situation was different. Students knew things, yet hadn’t divulged. We now had two boys gone from this world. We had grieving parents. We had heartbroken staff. We had a scared community. We had shocked school administrators. We also had a few courageous and brave students coming forward, and for that we are forever in debt. What we learned next was mind-boggling.

Evidently, packages of the suspected drug were being ordered over the Internet and being mailed from overseas to houses of the boys’ friends. The highly toxic synthetic drug could be purchased legally by anyone with a credit card or debit card, delivered directly in unmarked boxes to the confines of a private home. The same drugs shipped to homes in Park City, Utah, had been linked to numerous recent overdose deaths, including the rock legend Prince. Our teens needed two short clicks on a keyboard — and their shipment would be en route.

In a matter of a few hours, I was learning a great deal from the Drug Enforcement Agency. Federal agents were working with local law enforcement and the schools to prevent the loss of any more young lives.

A Public Voice
We were part of a national crisis, the scourge of opioids. I am now a public voice on an issue I never wanted to address. The ability to share this story, while being mindful of our grieving family, friends and community, has taken on a life of its own. As educators, we are taught from our first education course to share best practices. This has become my mission — if I can save one young person’s life, I have fulfilled my purpose. Speaking with regional superintendents turned into numerous state presentations, which has led to presenting at national addiction summits and collaborating with university departments of psychiatry and the state substance abuse division.

When I’m asked by parents and other school leaders for advice on preventative measures, here’s what I share:

» First, learn about trauma-informed, resiliency-focused measures that can be applied in your district.
We began with community conversations and circles of support to allow healing and education. We co-sponsored a film series that showed two films: “Chasing the Dragon,” a short documentary available on YouTube about ordinary people addicted to opiates, and “Resilience — The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.” Panels of experts were at each showing to answer questions and continue the conversation afterward.

“Resilience” correlates high scores on a measurement of adverse childhood experiences to increased medical problems in adulthood. Through in-depth interviews with doctors, educators and community advocates, the film offers ways to help children prevent serious medical consequences later in life.

Additionally, “Chasing the Dragon” was shown during the school day to all students in grades 8-12, with a panel of experts on hand to answer questions. It launched a dialogue that led to student advocacy groups promoting a new film, “Dying in Vein.” Shown a few months ago to our students, it artistically illustrates the personal and intimate story of a heroin user. Empowering students to be part of the change is essential.

» Second, review what you are teaching your students about resiliency, perseverance and grit.
Begin teaching these characteristics in preschool and continue through 12th grade. We teamed with Fatima Doman, author of Authentic Strengths, a book about a positive psychology research method, and we provided related training to all of our counselors, health teachers and nurses who have most access to students in the life skills curriculum and with students showing signs of extreme stress. This training uses the motto “Moving from what’s wrong, to what’s strong.”

The elementary schools have begun using mindfulness in all classes to teach students the benefits of breathing, working through the situation and not becoming emotionally charged. We are seeing some effects of these tools. A principal walked out to the playground during recess when she noticed two boys sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, breathing deeply. When she asked what they were doing, they admitted they had gotten angry playing soccer and instead of fighting, decided to do their breathing!

In Park City, we do not use the “scared straight” tactics that may be in use elsewhere. All the research I’ve seen indicates that telling students “don’t do it” without sharing the consequences will not positively change behavior. This idea was reinforced when the chief operating officer of Westgate Resorts contacted us after news of the two deaths hit the national level. Following the death of the Westgate CEO’s 18-year-old year daughter in 2015 from a toxic mix of prescription medications, his family and corporation sunk millions into a national campaign to affect behavioral change.

Westgate’s principal messages for educators are these: Scare tactics don’t work; empower school nurses to carry naloxone, the medication that reverses the effects of opioids; implement drug testing policies to deter and detect student drug use for early intervention; and use life skills curricula to address substance abuse at earlier ages.

The realization we ought to teach students at a younger age about drug prevention was critical. We are gathering all of the district’s counselors this summer to redesign our curriculum to provide real-time information students need to make healthy decisions. Teaming up with the county and district court systems, we certified four counselors as Prime for Life Providers, which has preventative education modules, as well as intervention methods for students and parents who have interacted with the courts.

We also collaborated with the public health department and local behavior health units and contracted specialists to provide school-based therapy in schools rather than ask parents to take students out of school for such services. For the new school year, we are hiring two additional social workers to help with this need. Following Westgate’s advice, we have created medication policies for all school nurses or designated staff to administer naloxone and store it at school sites. Westgate’s recommendation to test for drugs has been controversial, and no action has been taken to adopt a policy.

» Finally, come together as a community.
Within the school district, we organized Lunch and Learn information sessions during the noon hour to give parents practical strategies for talking with their children about substance abuse. We shared situations and developed stronger relationships with others in our community. We explored supportive frameworks, such as Communities that Care, to broaden our efforts to change the risky behaviors of our youth. With the support of the county health department, county council, city council and non-governmental partners, we are hiring our first Communities that Care coordinator to spearhead the attack on youth risk factors and increase youth protection.

In the aftermath of the tragic deaths, community leaders came together to address long-standing drug issues in and around Park City. Recognizing the long road ahead, we wanted to harness the momentum into real change.

Test Confirmation
Two months after the tragedy that rocked our small, tight-knit community, toxicology tests confirmed what we had suspected: The cause of death was due to acute drug intoxication of U-47700, known by the street name of “pink.”

Our only hope is that we continue to make a difference for more children by coming together as a community to work as a unified front to battle this crisis of opioid abuse. 
Ember Conley is superintendent of the Park City School District in Park City, Utah. E-mail: Twitter: @Dr_Ember

Additional Resources
Based on her experiences as a superintendent during the past year, Ember Conley suggests these practical resources:

» Authentic Strengths by Fatima Doman, CEO of Authentic Strengths Advantage

» Communities that Care, which guides communities through a five-phase change process with prevention science as its base to promote healthy youth development.

» Parents Empowered, a media and education campaign addressing underage drinking

» Films, “Resilience, The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope,” and “Chasing the Dragon